Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Comfort of Certainty

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Comfort of Certainty

Article excerpt

In France the separation of church and state was designed to protect the Republic.

In the United States its purpose was to preserve freedom of religion.

Some years ago in Mozambique, a Portuguese settler who had decided to stay on after independence was showing me around Luanda. We came to a particularly handsome, newly restored church, and he explained that as part of the recently launched reform policy to enhance people's confidence, the Marxist government had decided to end its compaign against the church. "The trouble", he said, "was that both promised heaven, but we promised to deliver it on earth. We haven't succeeded."

That is the straightforward fact which led to the collapse of communism--an attempt to provide an all-encompassing secular faith to regulate all aspects of man's relation to man, making the idea of man's relation to God not only superfluous but subversive. It has failed, and where it was imposed there has been a robust revival of the traditional religion, a testimony of the deeply felt need of all kinds of people with differing cultures for something to believe in beyond the evidence of everyday life. One way or another, people do seek meaning, a sense of purpose, that politics cannot adequately provide.

But seldom does religion, by itself, provide the organizing mechanisms through which societies can deal with the perennial issues of power and the need to adapt to changing circumstances. That is why there is always an element of politics, even in the most fundamentalist states, even in the most totalitarian dictatorships, though it may be hidden in religious rhetoric or a "cult" (a word borrowed from the vocabulary of religion) "of personality". People have conflicting interests and they can be ordinary. The way societies deal with this is politics, whatever it may be called. Politics and religion are presented as two different worlds, the one material, often self-serving, the other spiritual. But they are inevitably intertwined, and can no more be isolated from each other in social life than body and soul can be kept apart in a living person.

Take that as given. The question then is their impact on each other, their differing priorities, how they are to be reconciled. The separation of church and state, which does not necessarily mean their opposition, is a Western idea that emerged from the Renaissance and the Reformation, buttressed by the tremendous advance of science into the realms of mystery which once could only be penetrated by religion, by faith. Just now, quite apart from the familiar challenges that knowledge of cosmology, of physics, of biochemistry present to religious dogma, there are troubling new questions posed by innovative techniques in biology, lumped under the new word "bioethics". These have to do with genetic manipulation, extra-corporeal conception, the possibility of women, fertile or not, giving birth to somebody else's genetic baby. The possibilities didn't exist before, so neither did the questions. Are the answers to be supplied by politics (legislation), religious authority, or individual choice? A great debate is beginning in Western countries. A bill is already before the French Senate. Religious views will certainly play an important role wherever these questions are being faced.

One nation, under God

In any case, separation of church and state has never been so complete or so widespread as the concept suggests. There are modern democracies with formally established churches. Israel and England are examples. The Catholic church has special status in many countries, such as Italy, Spain and Poland. Germany provides publicly funded support for both Catholic and Protestant church institutions. In the United States, the tax system gives indirect support to churches of all kinds, and it can be a matter of political or judicial decision as to whether or not any group claiming to be a religion actually qualifies for this privilege. …

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