Palgrave Macmillan Author Perspectives

Multidisciplinary insights from our authors

A New Answer to Contemporary Questions about Religion’s Place in Society

A multicultural world of many faiths

It used to be thought that the significance of religion in the life of individuals, and its salience in the life of nations, would fade away gradually over time, as the twin forces of modernisation and secularisation took over the world.

Nowadays the picture does not look so clear.  It remains true that there is a long-term decline of conventional religious faith for many populations in much of the developed world, but this has not meant that the salience of religion has diminished in public life. On the contrary, religious identities have been asserted vigorously – and sometimes violently – in numerous contexts, and questions relating to religion have come to preoccupy politics in many different settings.

The first episode in this recent movement of religious reassertion can be traced to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which was followed by a series of convulsions in the Muslim world that show few signs of being resolved. But these movements of Islamic resurgence and resistance find their counterparts – or sometimes their imitators – within many other religious traditions, whether Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish or Buddhist. And there have been responses too among the adherents of secular belief systems, with a growth of Humanism, and the development of ‘the New Atheism’.  As a result, the contemporary landscape of ‘religion or belief’ has become increasingly complicated and conflicted. There are numerous divisions and tensions within and between different traditions, both secular and religious, flagged by oppositions such as the traditional versus the modern, the liberal versus the fundamentalist or the modern versus the postmodern.

At the same time, the leading social developments of the day – especially the movements of populations via travel or migration, and the global accessibility of communication via the internet – have brought all the various groups of religion or belief into closer proximity with each other, whether in real or in virtual environments.  Many more people than ever before live in a multicultural world, in which their effective social spaces are shared with a variety – sometimes a bewildering variety – of different kinds of religion or belief.  How can this diversity be managed and contained? How can a range of groups distinguished by ethnicity and/or religion be integrated within a single society? What role should be played by the state? These are some of the urgent questions raised in the contemporary world about religion’s place in society.

The theocratic response: conformity of religion or belief

Responses to such questions vary greatly from context to context, and from place to place. On the one hand, there are attempts to use the powers of state to enforce – or sometimes to create from scratch – a degree of uniformity in the religious belief and practice of the given state’s civilian population. This is an attempt, in effect, to reverse the tendency towards multiculturalism, in pursuit of religious conformity, often conceived in terms of religious purity. This drive to convert the assertion of one particular religious tradition into religious supremacy – to create a theocracy, in other words – is accompanied all too frequently by censorship, suppression, enforced population movement, and, in the limit, genocide and war. 

Similar attempts can however be made by secular regimes that work to impose an anti-religious orthodoxy of (secular and atheistic) practice and belief on their subject populations.  Such secular theocracies (if the strangeness of the terminology can be excused) include the former Soviet states, and, arguably, the example of China today.

The liberal response: separation or establishment

In contrast to this range of exclusive and theocratic responses to diversity, there are inclusive and liberal responses, which endorse – or at least accept – the multicultural social reality. The response that defines a liberal state in this field is the extension of toleration to a wide range of religious or secular practice and belief within its civilian population.

The historical roots of liberal toleration lie in the sectarian – intra-Christian – religious conflicts that beset Europe throughout the early modern period.  Two distinct patterns for the relationship of religion to the state emerged however from the blood-soaked conflicts of those times.

The first pattern involves the separation of religion from the state. According to this pattern, the state does not endorse or support any religious view, fund any religious organisations, or use religious symbols or rituals in connection with its public activities. Religious practice in the civilian population, which is allowed by the state according to the precepts of toleration, is confined to a private sphere, marked off clearly from the state institutions themselves. Nations influenced by the ideals of the European Enlightenment, including France and the United States, conform to this pattern, which often emerged historically as part of a revolutionary reconstruction of the state in question. There are significant variations within this secular pattern in the extent to which religious expression is discouraged within the public domain, with the French doctrine of laïcité an especially uncompromising case in point.

The second pattern involves the special recognition of one or more religious traditions by the state, alongside the guarantees of toleration that permit a much wider range of religious observance among the population at large.  Religious establishment of this kind often emerged historically from a situation in which a previous regime of theocracy was gradually liberalised through the extension of toleration to wider and wider set of ethno-religious groups. The UK and the countries of the Commonwealth conform to this pattern, via the special position accorded constitutionally to the episcopalian Church of England; Scotland does too, because of the special position granted there to the presbyterian Church of Scotland, and so do many of the other countries in protestant Northern Europe.

The social equality of religion or belief:  a new alternative for the liberal state

Much more recently – within the last ten or twenty years – an entirely new pattern has begun to emerge for the relationship of religion to the liberal state. This alternative has been named the social equality of religion or belief, sometimes abbreviated to ‘serob’. A book of this title published recently by Palgrave describes this new alternative, illustrates its applications, and provides a range of critical responses to both its strengths and its weaknesses.

A convenient place to start in describing the idea behind the social equality of religion or belief is with the UK Equality Acts, which passed into law in 2006 and 2010 respectively. Prior to these Acts, there was legislation in the UK that protected individuals against discrimination and related harms in respect of gender, race, ethnicity and disability. These were the existing ‘strands’ of the UK’s law on equality. Under this law, the UK courts had ruled that two groups with a religious provenance – Jews and Sikhs – were sufficiently compact in ethnic terms to enjoy protection as ethnic groups. Other religious communities, including Christians and Muslims, were adjudged by contrast to be too diverse in the ethnic backgrounds of their members to qualify for protection.  In the circumstances of the early 2000s, when the existing laws on equality were about to be unified in a single piece of legislation, it seemed expedient to remove this anomaly, by making ‘religion’ one of the characteristics that was explicitly protected – a new strand of the law on equality.

The immediate effect of this legislation was to protect individual members of every religious community against religious discrimination, alongside Jews and Sikhs. Since the legislation was designed to apply to secular belief systems too, Humanists and Atheists became protected in parallel fashion for the first time: the legislation was about ‘religion or belief’ and not just ‘religion’.  This development embodied the principle of non-discrimination, as it applied to the new strand of ‘religion or belief’.

But the way in which this new legislation arose created two additional principles that have very far-reaching effects on the relationship of religion to the state – effects that are more far-reaching, perhaps, than those who framed the legislation ever intended.

The second principle arises because every religion or belief system is recognised in the same terms by the state for the purposes of the legislation: they are all ‘equal before the law’. This principle can be called the principle of equal advantage.

The third principle arises because the law brings religious identity into the same frame of reference as all the other strands of the equality law, and no strand is given overt precedence.  As one commentator put it: ‘There can be no hierarchy in equality’. This principle can be called strand equality. Since religion was not the only new strand included within the Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010 – age, sexuality and social caste were added as well – religion entered the frame on ostensibly equal terms with all these other strands.*

The social equality of religion or belief (serob) is then simply the name given to these three principles considered together:

  • non-discrimination (in respect of identities of religion or belief);
  • equal advantage (of each religion or belief system compared to other religions or belief systems);
  • strand equality (of ‘religion or belief’ as a whole compared to other strands relating to social identity, including gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, age and social caste).

What makes serob new?

Religious toleration emerged in a world in which differences between religious traditions were rife, and often bitterly contested, but in which there was no recognised alternative to religion as such – atheism, say, was almost impossible to conceive as a practical option for living. Serob promises to make up for this historical deficit. To give one example, the First Amendment to the US Constitution famously protects ‘the free exercise’ of religion, which leaves out of account those without religious faith. Under serob’s principles, the US Constitution should protect instead ‘the free exercise of religion or belief’.

But there are other respects in which serob’s principles broaden and strengthen toleration. It is not just that citizens are free as before to practise their religions. Under the non-discrimination principle, they can gain redress through the courts for certain harms that may arise from that practice. The principle creates a level playing field for religious observance – and the pursuit of secular beliefs – of a type that did not exist before. And the principle of strand equality extends social toleration even further, to embrace social identities defined in a variety of different ways in addition to ‘religion or belief’.
These provisions may be said to modernise the received arrangements of both separation and establishment, adapting them to contemporary conditions. But serob’s distinctiveness from its historical competitors appears in sharpest relief in relation to its second principle of equal advantage: 

  • under a regime of separation between religion and the state, the state does not recognise any religious tradition;
  • under a regime of religious establishment, the state typically recognises one (or a few) religious traditions, but does not recognise the rest;
  • under serob, the state recognises all religious traditions, and secular belief systems as well.

Serob’s preferred arrangement may be called omni-establishment, to mark its difference from both separation and the received historical forms of establishment.
Serob’s unacknowledged influence

There is a fascinating recent history in the changing relationship of religion(s) to the state, in which clear movements in serob’s direction can be detected, despite the fact that serob’s basic principles have been articulated rather rarely by the lawyers, politicians or religious leaders who have led the changes.

This point applies to the passage of the UK Equality Acts, as mentioned above, because the principles underlying the legislation were never spelled out at the time it was passed.

Different chapters in the book illustrate the same theme in a variety of other settings, including:

  • Recent judicial interpretations of the Constitution in both the US and Canada (where the equal advantage principle is usually called ‘state neutrality’). The relevant laws in the two countries are phrased in terms of ‘freedom’, but tend to be interpreted these days in terms of ‘equality’;
  • Changing justifications by the Anglican Church of its official position in the UK and the Commonwealth, evident during the course of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, towards a more inclusive doctrine of establishment;
  • Procedures adopted by Scotland’s newly-established Parliament at the opening of its weekly business (‘Proportional Prayers’), which implement serob’s principles without quite saying so;
  • Changes to its Constitution relating to Brazil’s agreement of a Concordat with the Catholic Church in 2008. The Concordat moved Brazil from a secular regime of separation to a form of (quasi-)establishment,  since when there have been steps taken by the Brazilian Senate in the direction of serob, without the latest movement being described in precisely those terms.

As a result of such manifestations in a variety of different contexts, and in a surprising range of different countries, serob’s principles may be said to enjoy a remarkable subterranean influence – quite deep but generally unacknowledged. A major aim of the book is to bring these developments to light, in order to examine serob’s manner of organising religion’s place in society, and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the new approach.

Serob’s strengths and weaknesses

Serob’s strengths include its ethical appeal to notions of social inclusion and impartiality. It also exhibits a nice combination of flexibility with firmness. There is a good deal of flexibility about where it is applied, in terms of different areas of the state’s activities; but this is allied to firmness about how it is applied, once the first set of decisions has been taken about its domain of application. In particular, serob’s principles mandate that no specific religion or belief system can be favoured by the state. Nor can ‘identities of religion or belief’ be favoured by the state over other sources of social identity.

These strengths do not make serob immune to criticism. Far from it, the different contributors to the book hold a variety of views about its merits, some of which are highly critical.  Here are just three of the basic issues with the new approach covered within the pages of the book.

1. How (on earth) is ‘religion or belief’ defined?

It is difficult enough to define ‘religion’ – the eminent sociologist Max Weber famously balked at the attempt.  But what are we to make of the attempt to map the boundaries of the even-broader concept of ‘religion or belief’ in the way that the law now demands.  What kinds of beliefs should the state protect? Beliefs about what?

To give one example, environmentalism has been accepted in one recent case by a UK Court as a belief system worthy of protection under the law. But this is distinctly odd. Many environmentalists are secular scientists who believe that their views correspond with the evidence, and yet they are obliged to argue for legal purposes as if their belief system is sufficiently similar to a religion to deserve a similar level of protection.

This problem of definition arises in the first instance for the application of serob, because of its dependence on the notion of ‘religion or belief’. But it can be shown that similar problems lie in wait for the alternative doctrines of separation or establishment. Even where the state keeps religion at arm’s length, it has to define for legal purposes what it is keeping at a distance, as a celebrated case in the US – the Florida Warner case – demonstrates. And a regime of establishment must likewise define the tenets of the established religion. In the case of the Anglican Church, for example, there are famously thirty-nine articles of the faith, not thirty-eight or forty.

The underlying question concerns the location of the authority to make the necessary judgements about the contents of particular religions or belief systems. In the end, the courts will have to decide what exactly the state is acting to protect in the new field of ‘religion or belief’, but whom do the courts turn to for advice?  Should the courts listen to religious leaders, but what if there are competing doctrines within a given religious tradition: can the courts favour one side over another in an internal religious dispute? Should the courts therefore summon academic experts, but, again, which ones, given that academics tend to adopt differing – often radically different – perspectives on ‘religion or belief’? Or should the courts rely on the personal views of lay litigants, who can easily define for themselves their own practices of religion or belief? Different chapters of the book examine this vexed problem in a number of different contexts.

2. How are the different religious or secular traditions likely to respond to this new approach?

A short – and rather brutal – way of describing the implications of serob’s principles is to say that no particular religion or belief is special, compared to other religions and belief systems, and nor is religion or belief special as a whole, compared to other sources of social identity.  But these assertions fly in the face of the self-understandings of many religious and secular traditions, which tend to regard themselves as offering a privileged insight into humankind’s moral or spiritual condition, and to regard religious (or secular) identity as central to a person’s proper life.  How, then, will different traditions respond to a frame of reference imposed by the state that refuses to acknowledge this superiority? And how will these responses affect serob’s prospects for the successful integration of a variety of religious groups within a multicultural, multifaith society?

This is partly an issue concerning (inter-religious) sectarianism, and the ability of specific faiths and belief systems to co-exist on equal terms with other faiths and systems, as envisaged by the principle of equal advantage. But it also brings into play the principle of strand equality, and the views and practices of different religious traditions regarding questions such as gender, sexuality, social caste, and even disability. What happens when the views held within a particular tradition clash with serob’s requirements in these respects? What, or who, will give way, if religious believers resist or withhold equal rights on the basis of gender, sexuality or social caste?

These are difficult questions, pursued within the book in relation to specific examples involving the Christian (especially Anglican and Catholic), Muslim, Hindu and Sikh traditions.  Not much can be said in general, perhaps, about possible outcomes, except to note that religious responses to serob are likely to vary i) over historical time – we are arguably living through a sectarian, fundamentalist historical phase, for example; ii) within each tradition, where the liberal currents of the tradition are likely to find less difficulty with serob than the orthodox or fundamentalist currents, iii) between different traditions, which differ in their doctrines and histories of relationships with other faiths, and their amenability to inclusion within the parameters of a secular state. Some of the book’s contributors regard it as a fool’s errand to expect serob to overcome these sources of resistance from specific religious traditions. It may even be dangerous in this view to give intransigent religions the degree of state recognition that serob implies. At the very least, a tricky and protracted process of inter-faith negotiation will evidently be required, if serob is ever to be stabilised as the normative foundation for a multicultural society

3) What does social justice demand for the relationship of religion(s) with the state?

The first requirement of social justice in this field is for the state to guarantee the free exercise of religion or belief by the civilian population – to uphold toleration, in other words. But does justice require the state to go beyond this, towards the explicit recognition of different religious traditions?

As we have seen, Enlightenment thought tends to regard toleration as sufficient (as well as necessary) for religious justice, and to rule out the formal engagement of the state with religion – this is what the doctrine of separation between church and state means. But there are signs of this long-established view softening in recent years.  Influential thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas in Europe and John Rawls in the US have argued for a more accommodating attitude towards religion, and religious believers, within the framework of a liberal secular state.

One reason for this development is the conviction that it is unfair to religious believers to refuse public recognition for identities that are at the heart of their lives – this represents a ‘slap in the face’, as one commentator put it. And a useful supporting insight is that a state can recognise a religion for various public purposes – including funding and so on – without thereby endorsing a particular set of religious doctrines. Proponents of secularism and the separation of church and state have countered with the argument that it is unfair to permit religious considerations to carry weight within the domain of democratic politics, because such considerations serve to exclude from public debate those citizens who do not share the faith in question. Public engagement requires the exercise of ‘public reason’.

The arguments on each side of the justice issue are considered carefully in the book from a Rawlsian perspective by the political philosopher Cécile Laborde. Her conclusion is that neither side in the debate provides a persuasive argument against either religious separation or religious establishment, each of which can be made compatible with social justice. Justice does not therefore mandate either of these two arrangements for religion’s place in society.

Since religious establishment is compatible with justice, according to this view, then so is serob’s principle of equal advantage, which involves a form of omni-establishment, as noted above. Indeed, serob looks more defensible from this point of view than the typical historical forms of establishment, since it seems fairer to recognise all religions (and belief systems) than to recognise only some. It follows at all events that the social equality of religion or belief cannot be ruled out on grounds of justice.

But there is a final twist to this story about justice. Notice that separation – the exclusion of all religions from recognition by the state – treats all of them in the same way, precisely because none is recognised. So separation turns out to be compatible with the principle of equal advantage:  it consists of the special case of zero recognition of religion(s) by the state. This finding reorients the axis of debate for the justice question: the issue is no longer one of separation versus establishment, but of whether or not the principle of equal advantage is observed, regardless of the degree of recognition granted by the state. A rider may be added to this conclusion, as follows. If it would be unjust, according to contemporary sensibilities, for the state to recognise religious values and interests in a way that would override social equality in other respects, then the principle of strand equality is also required by justice. It may therefore be that the social equality of religion or belief – which combines strand equality with the equal advantage principle – is the only arrangement for religion’s place in society that is compatible with liberal conceptions of justice. This would constitute a very powerful argument in serob’s favour.

A challenge to other views

The social equality of religion or belief possesses a number of attractions as a set of organising principles for religion’s place in society. But it has a number of potential drawbacks as well, as several contributors to the book make clear. If these drawbacks are thought sufficiently damning to rule out serob’s claims, a challenge is thereby posed for serob’s detractors: what other set of principles would you propose in order to organise the role of religion or belief within a liberal multicultural society?


 * ‘Ostensibly’ is added here to indicate that the fine print of the UK Equality law contains certain specific exemptions from strand equality, whose effect is to shield religious organisations from the full impact of the principle, especially in relation to gender, sexuality and social caste. As a result, the recent UK law ends up treating ‘religion or belief’ differently from other strands of social equality.

Alan Carling, Bradford, September 2016

© Springer Dr. Alan Carling trained in mathematics and political science, and taught social sciences at the University of Bradford, UK. His publications related to social inequality and social change include Social Division (1991), and (with Marie Macey) Ethnic, Racial and Religious Inequalities (2011). Alan is involved with a number of community initiatives in Bradford.