European Diversity, Religion and Citizenship

By Pedziwiatr, Konrad | European Judaism, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

European Diversity, Religion and Citizenship


Pedziwiatr, Konrad, European Judaism


After the terrorist attacks on the London transport network on 7 July 2005 some academics and journalists announced the 'death of multiculturalism' in Europe. Multiculturalism, however, cannot be dead because it is a social reality for millions of Europeans. Not only these who live in the global cities like London, Paris, Rome, and others, but also those who live in small ones like the Italian City of Peace, Rovereto. All the European societies from east to west and from north to south have become increasingly diverse, multicultural, multiracial and multi-religious. This diversity is producing not only high levels of uncertainty, but also lack of social cohesion. As Putnam notices in his latest large-scale study of social solidarity in American society, in the ethnically diverse areas there is less trust and civic engagement. (2) Such areas lack, above all, meaningful social encounters.

One of the forces which is able to provide more opportunities for meaningful interactions across ethnic lines is religion. It can also significantly empower citizenship. This paper aims to shed light on how religions may contribute to identity, participatory and normative dimensions of citizenship, which is often understood at its lowest common denominator as a membership in a legally constituted political community.

Religion and Citizenship

While the role of religious factors in contemporary politics has been generally acknowledged, very little attention has been paid to the link between religion and citizenship and the influence of religion on the way people view themselves as citizens. If religious identity was taken into account in the research on citizenship it has usually been viewed as a threat to civic self-definition, as if religious belonging automatically excluded the civic, and vice versa. One of the reasons for this antagonistic vision of relationship between religion and citizenship may lie in the original understanding of civil society formulated by Thomas Hobbes as an alternative to kingdom and the church. The seventeenth-century English political philosopher used the notion to describe a sphere of social activity distinguished from the state and out of reach of religious authority. (3)

Hollenbach suggests that another reason could lie in the heightened awareness of religious diversity in contemporary societies and related to it an understanding of the difficulty, or even impossibility, of reaching an agreement on a common definition of the 'good life'. (4) Members of today's individualized societies, as Beck and Beck-Gernsheim aptly note, tend to be wary or at least lukewarm to such concepts as 'common good', 'good society' or 'just society'. (8) I believe it is not only religious diversity that makes them sceptical of the chances of achieving a common definition of 'good life', but more the general cultural diversity and increasing functional differentiation or, as Giddens prefers to call it, the disembedding. (6) The growth of individual freedoms and the increase in opportunities for greater self-interpretation made many social actors socially indifferent, as if the task of constructing personal biographies obscured them from a social reality without which, however, they are unable to perform this task. (7)

The perceptions of relations between religion and citizenship as a zero-sum game have also been largely influenced by images of such places as Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq or Darfur, to name only the main conflict areas on which the media focuses nowadays, where religion plays a divisive role. More generally, they are based on knowledge of the history of religion. Worries about the conflict-prone tendencies of religion are thus not a product of the secularist bias but are well grounded and legitimate. Religious beliefs and loyalties may deepen social divisions which in some places results in the outburst of violence. As numerous studies show, religions may build communal bonds that do not coincide with those linking the citizens of nation-states and thus threaten the basis of the unity of state and set subdivisions of the human race at odds with each other.

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