As If God Did Not Exist

04/08/2013 12:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Her Majesty the Queen is the head of the Church of England. She inherited the title Fidei defensor, "Defender of the Faith", from her ancestors. In the British constitutional monarchy, the head of state not only invokes God on certain occasions but also protects what is perceived as the "true faith" in this God. In Germany, the head of state -- although less glamorous and colorful than a monarch in full regalia -- also invokes God while he is sworn into office. However, he has the right to choose whether or not to recite this particular part of the federal oath of office. So far, every president has done so. On a legal level, the German constitution and state-level constitutions all include references to man's responsibilities before God. But both the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany claim to be secular states. So why is there so much fuss about God?

Religion has always been an issue on the European continent. The emergence of Christianity in the Roman Empire laid the foundation for a sacred realm in the post-Roman world that was blessed by the Christian God rather than by the ancient deities. The new God was perceived differently in the North and the South of the continent. The Nordic tribes described their Gods with strength, the Southern tribes invoked beauty. It's a difference in world views that may have endured over time and remains valid today: Do the people in the North not perceive the current crisis differently than those in the South? Austerity versus stimulus. The strength of discipline that lies in saving is pitted against the beauty of creating by stimulus. We could make this argument if we regard religion as the culmination of understanding of oneself and others within a linguistic community.

The German Emperors saw themselves as rightful followers of the Roman Caesars. To legitimize their reign, they bowed before a heavenly monarch: Jesus Christ, the divine king. The Christian way of life shaped Europe and gave Europeans a common cultural heritage. But battles were also fought over the specific understanding of Christian teachings. In England and Germany, two new churches arose out of the medieval bloodshed: the Lutheran Church and the Anglican Church. The unity of the European continent in terms of religion had been broken. North and South were split. Strength against beauty.

Never again!

Astonishingly, Christianity never vanished throughout the course of European history: Humanism, modern science, the period of Enlightenment -- all these historical developments opposed Christian teachings of their time but were nonetheless shaped by religious figures, often by members of the clergy. Nicolaus Copernicus was a priest, for example. I guess this strange and strong unity helps us explain why the people of Europe never abandoned Christianity. It is also the reason why Christianity has been very staunch in its support for, or opposition to, various political movements over time. Take, for instance, the controversy within the Christian churches of how to deal with communism. Communist teachings embraced a lot of Christian thought. But by rooting its ideology exclusively in this world, by separating it from another realm that would be "not from this world," communism clearly contradicted the Christian understanding of the finality of this world.

So it is no wonder, consequently, that the presence or absence of God in the European project has always been a matter of strong and engaged debates throughout the continent -- remember the controversy about the inclusion of a reference to God in the European constitution? To many, invoking God seemed anachronistic in a post-national, post-religious endeavor. Until the French Revolution, every government on earth invoked divine rights for its legitimization and sought the blessings of established religions. After 1789, the concept of the nation-state became dominant. Both concepts led into disaster and massive destruction. The peace treaty that was signed after the Thirty Years' War -- during which more than half of the population living on soil that belongs to Germany today were killed, and others were wounded, tortured, or raped - speaks for itself: Etsi Deus Non Daretur. The parties agreed to a peace as if God would not exist. They were tired of fighting over theological questions regarding the Last Supper of the Lord, while the whole country was starving. Nationalism played a role in both world wars. The proclamation of "never again" at the beginning of European unification was a definite break with nationalism.

After the destruction of World War II -- and this is the flip side of the European project -- there was the need for reconciliation. In the countries that had been occupied by the Nazis, some found the strength to forgive the Germans for what they had done. Forgiveness was fueled by the power and with the support of Christian faith. It is embodied in the common knowledge of the Christian tradition: Christ forgave his persecutors before he died. This ideal of forgiveness has been a role model of the postwar era. It lives on in the inscription "Father Forgive", added behind the altar of the cathedral of Coventry, which had been destroyed by the German air force during World War II.

All this suggests that secularism is not exercised coherently in Europe. Here are several observations:

First, religious beliefs can be a force behind the motivation to engage in politics. Some parties explicitly ground their political engagement in the teachings of Christianity -- you can usually identify those parties by the "C" in their acronym -- but the influence of Christianity extends far beyond them. Many people who don't identify as overtly religious find meaning in what the Christian religious tradition has to say about engaging in the affairs of the world. Parliamentarians might serve under a purely secular system. However, this is the same system that grants them the right to exercise their freedom of religion and the privilege to believe in whatever God they choose. Clearly, no one would argue that their lives aren't influenced by their religious beliefs.

Second, freedom of religion is not just an individual right but extends to religious communities as well. Secularism acknowledges that controversial societal questions are debated by a wide range of interest groups. Religious denominations are one example. A secular society that places obstacles before religious groups, and thus impedes their ability to contribute to societal discourses, secular pluralism ceases to function. The idea loses its credibility.

Third, Western secularism has learnt how to deal with religion against the backdrop of the Christian occident. Secularism and Christianity, have learned how to live with each other: Conflicts have been fought and settled over the relationship between secular and Christian authorities, and over the hierarchy of the two. German law still includes the so-called Staatskirchenrecht that regulates the relations between church and state. Every German state maintains a concordat with the the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church. These documents the relation of the state with the church in relation to education, for example. It goes without saying that the religious map of Europe has changed over the centuries, and especially since the 1950s. A strong Muslim minority has emerged in each country of the European Union, and we have witnessed the rise of a certain sensitivity towards other, smaller religious groups. Finally, we acknowledge those who don't identify with religion at all. The consequence is that the classical Staatskirchenrecht has to be tranformed into a modern Religionsrecht: Instead of defining the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church, we must spell out the rights and duties of religions within a secular system. But scholars hardly argue about that.

Fourth, I argue that religious speech is linguistically different from other forms of speech. I follow the philosopher Jacques Derrida, who wrote that a couple swears lifelong devotion during a wedding, and that a politician swears solemnly when reciting the oath of office. They speak as if a third party listened and had to confirm the words that are uttered. Derrida makes the following point: If you vow, be it while marrying or while sworn into office, you swear. Swear morphs into an-swear, written today as answer. Our existence sometimes requires, or longs for, an aspiration or confirmation that transcends our human condition. Religion has conserved this longing for enduring testimony in its very specific language, not only in worlds but also in symbols. Many court buildings are adorned with painted scenes of Judgment Day. The visible display of Judgment Day and of the Christian cross embodies the hope for ultimate justice, carried out on earth. The religious motive is a vehicle that links the worldly struggle to the idea of divine justice.

Fifth, religious symbolism is a natural component of culture. Today, many different languages are spoken in the European Union, but Christian iconography harks back to a time when only the elites were capable of reading and writing. The cross, which is arguably the most visible religious sign in Europe today, is such an icon. It expresses a part of our cultural identity.

Christianity has ceased to be a religion

On all these points, the faithful and non-believers can agree. The ground is prepared for a sixth observation:

Christianity has become such a big part of our perceived reality and of European civilization that it is not regarded as a religion anymore. It has become a set of symbols, a set of values, a set of stories, a set of utopias, and so forth.

I do not mean this disrespectfully. I do not mean this in the sense of Karl Rahner, who argued in his book Anonymous Christians that we are all religious, since we subconsciously subscribe to a basic set of Christian principles. Let me give an example: During the world-famous passion play at Oberammergau in Bavaria in 2010, the director mentioned that he was less than a lousy Catholic. A discussion erupted whether a non-believer should direct the story of the passion of Christ. Surely he can: The story of Jesus' suffering isn't the exclusive property of the Catholic Church or of Christians. It belongs to everybody. Fragments from the Christian tradition are found in songs of the Beatles and in the writings of Albert Camus.

What are the consequences of these observations? Today, Europe is becoming increasingly aware of the intertwined relationship of the secular state and the Christian religion. It's no contradiction that, according to a recent survey, 70 percent of Europeans declared that they strive to live their lives according to basic Christian principles while church attendance continues to decline.

Europe is also made aware of this particular liaison by the growth of the Muslim population. Islam is not as familiar to most of Europeans as Christianity. It carries the insignia of a religion that aren't present anymore in the faith of our fathers: religious conviction, dogmatic beliefs, a religiously infused lifestyle, and the proclamation of some sort of divine truth. The rise of European Muslim communities is accompanied by the rise of fundamental Christian groups, who raise suspicions even within the conservative Catholic hierarchy. Pope John Paul II was once asked (long before he fell ill) if the churches of the reformation are indeed Christian churches. He said yes. But, he added, Pentecostals and Evangelicals are not. They shorten the Christian message and resort to simple answers that cannot be supported by the Christian faith.

This leads us to one crucial aspect that will be predominate any further debate in the European Union about religion: the supremacy of the law over religious convictions. Interest groups of the traditional Christian churches have had to learn the art of secular discourse. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church bans abortion, but it acknowledges that secular laws might allow it. The mission of the Church isn't to sidestep the law; it is to influence its content.

Secularism does not prohibit religiosity

Although the Acts of the Apostles -- the fifth book of the New Testament -- says that one ought to be more obedient to God than to man, no Christian church would demand that their faithful brethren overthrow the secular state and its rule of law. But this is not a given in debates with Muslim communities: Islam hasn't been subjected to the same historical processes that shaped Christian churches in Europe.

I don't mean to blame Muslims. The flourishing of new religions on the continent helps us see the contradictions that we have grown accustomed to. One recent bloomer: A soldier in the British Royal Navy fought for his right to practice Satanism on board of his ship. The court sided with him on the grounds of freedom of religion. This may sound strange to our (secular) ears, because linguistically we are still shaped by the Christian belief that "The Beast" must not be worshiped.

In Germany, a new constitution might be in order within the next few years. The Constitutional Court alluded in this direction because of the further integration of Europe and the legal problems it raises under the current constitutional framework. Depending on how far integration proceeds, a new constitution might be in order. Would it still mention God in its preamble? Would it still protect Christian holidays as holy? (Currently, the police is authorized to break up loud parties on Good Friday, since it's protected as a day of national contemplation.)

Will an example from the City of Oxford become the norm? It recently ruled that no Christmas trees could be erected in public places, lest non-Christians be offended. This is as silly as it sounds, and it will be a passing phenomenon. We will not follow the American model and avoid saying "Merry Christmas" in favor of "Happy Holidays." Why would we have to? Secularism does not imply the prohibition of individual religiosity or of public displays of faith. Secularism means being aware of the fact the achievements of Europe do not rest on divine intervention. Calling for help from above -- instead of working towards secular and worldly solutions -- is a declaration of bankruptcy of the credo Etsi Deus Non Daretur by which we have run our public affairs since 1648. The slogan "As if God did not exist" implies a simple and convincing message: We don't have to ascertain or rule out God's existence to be able to embrace the secular tradition.

by Alexander Görlach

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