The Difficulties of Religious Freedom on the Multi-ethnic European Frame


25 February 2018 – Video and text of the paper by Professor Aldo Natale Terrin, Pontificio Istituto di Liturgia Pastorale, Padua, at the International Convention Law and Freedom of Belief, an arduous journey, held in Florence on 18-19 January 2018.

The Difficulties of Religious Freedom on the Multi-ethnic European Frame

About religious minorities


Societies and culture are becoming more and more multi-ethnic. Nowadays it’s impossible to find a homogeneous people, born in the same country, speaking the same language and sharing the same traditions. At the beginning 21st century, if we observe the present situation, we note a contradiction or a great discrepancy: on the one hand, human plurality: peoples, cultures, religions, different ideas are so mixed that an eventual agreement or clarification of the respective positions in order to realize a human togetherness (Arendt) is rather improbable. On the other hand, we remark that peoples are striving to achieve their own distinctiveness.

We might say that the idea of “global” and “local” as described by C. Geertz[1] years ago, are more and more conflicting and hardly able to recognize each other. Perhaps the loss of identity that comes with the homologation of peoples and cultures as a result of the opening of markets, causes the opposite reaction: the strong will for a new and effective identity. We have to admit that nowadays multi-ethnic society is a world-wide phenomenon; so, we are compelled to enlarge our narrow vision till to prefigure a real post-nationalism. In other words, the free circulation of peoples and goods, open markets and the connected work demand the transformation of a people in a heterogeneous community[2]. African and Asian peoples, for example, often dream of a Western heaven but every migration always implies an eradication from the original culture and the difficult settlement of different cultures in the Western Europe.

Italy too, like the other countries, is becoming more and more a multi-ethnic nation where different religions and peoples live together. This socio-cultural situation necessarily generates many problems of cohabitation, mostly concerning “a people’s right” and “ an individual’s right”. Since individuals profess different religions, the difficulties arise primarily from “divine right” and also from “human rights”, from democracies and from liberal states (with their peculiarities).

To prevent conflicts and wars, for example in the past, the European nations, imbued with Christian tradition, have tried to distinguish between the “Kingdom of Heaven” and “kingdoms of men”, between “spiritual” matters and “temporal” matters, between “God” and “Caesar”, between “Church” and “State”. This situation has juridically created political regimes where religions do not claim to incorporate communities and where the powers are clearly distinct.

But the real problem emerges as soon as Muslims interfere. What about Umma? We know that this is a community in which religion and social life are equal in value; is it enough to say that “islam” means total submission? If the Islamic identity prevails with its strong nationalist mark, the whole scenery is in fact compromised.

To tell the truth, Talal Asad, a famous anthropologist, has appropriately criticized the distinction between “religious” and “secular” because secular implies a form of citizenship that transcends religious identity; so, a new dualism takes place. All this explains the difficulty of living together.

Talal Asad underlines the fundamental role played by religions in the process of the establishment of nations and now we are watching not only the failure of secularization but also the increasing pressure of religions[3]. To a large extent we might say that a controversial relation exists between universalism (Laws that must apply to all), and individuality. How may we conciliate the plurality of cultures and peoples with individual needs for leading a comfortable life?

The chief aim of my short essay is to illustrate the difficulties concerning the various religious minorities: I wish to summarize in the following dilemma: is there any chance, in a lay context, that religions, permeated by divine right, will be able to reconcile with societies based on democracy and human rights?

1. May the religious pluralism coexist with the idea of nation seen as a whole of shared values? Let’s examine the present situation

On the one hand, cultural and religious pluralism requires that we pay attention to other people’s expectations and values remembering what A. Giddens said: we too are the others to the others. Such attention must be universally directed. On the other, it seems impossible for us to give up our identity because it would mean the loosing of our own world and so we want to preserve our memory, our history and our religion.

We must absolutely distinguish between multi-culturalism and inter-culturalism: only the latter is a network of “available meanings” and are based upon “shared values” or “collective conscience” (Bohannan) that characterizes the true inter-culturalism. But normally, multi-culturalism remains the symbol of “divided values”. Even globalization leads to the “inter” of markets but not to an “inter” of cultures, peoples and religions.

2. What “nation” and “people” mean.

Eppure una nazione comporta quasi per definizione una qualche unità.

When we say “nation” we inevitably think of a form of unity. According to John Rowls, every nation is a whole of shared values, more exactly, an “overlapping consensus”[4]. It’s a straightforward but interesting definition. Nation is an inclusive concept that joins common and shared tradition, memories, histories and languages; of course we are not referring to abstract knowledge but to a common geographic territory: cities, villages, churches, cathedrals, castles, houses, streets: “the places of memory”. In my opinion, this local aspect is fundamental to understand the identity of a people.

But also language contributes to unify it because different languages interfere with integration. The difficulty of integration with a place when one speaks another language is very hard. “Our language is our world”, said Wittgenstein, but if different languages mean “different” worlds, inevitably our mutual understanding vanishes together with the unity of customs and traditions.

3. Culture and religion: q unifying factor and a problem at the same time.

“Relativism” o “ethnocentrism”?

Territory, language, traditions, memory, authority are built on the concept of culture. Therefore the culture, the nation in political sense, is the world that needs to trace out clear boundaries to preserve its own unity. Now, the question is where these boundaries have to be set: among peoples? classes? generations? Or among individuals? We can no longer distinguish between social limits and personal limits.[5]

The big difference is how to hold together different points of view. The concept of “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung) suggested by Gadamer and at the basis of every significant hermeneutics, is really an impossible metaphor. We cannot see two different horizons at the same time because every horizon is relative to a determinate view of the world and to the fixed place of the observer. Naturally, Gadamer refers to the temporal horizon and to the historical conscience, but the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, here pertains to the cultural sphere. Of course, delimitating a people and a culture requires some specific factors: “coherence”, “uniformity of views”, “homogeneity”. Unfortunately it is hard to find these elements in the multi-ethnic cultures.

We may than better start from something as R. Rorty’s assumption. The author in Irony, Contingency and Solidariety[6] promotes a “happy multi-culturalism” that reflects the idea suggested by J. Luc Nancy, according to which one has to praise the admixture assuming that every tradition is as rational and moral as the other ones.

But can we lead a social and cultural life without having a specific point of view? Geertz in The Uses of Diversity replies ironically to Rorty and explains that it’s very hard to live in a world that still accepts the “Head Cutters” (Philippines) or superstitious beliefs and catastrophic prophecies. The truth is that differences are destined to remain as it is true that a Frenchman will never eat salted butter and in general most of the peoples are not looking forward to the return of the old good times, when a widow is burnt with her dead husband on the funeral pire[7]!

The reference goes to ethnocentrism intended as an insuperable reality. Geertz also writes about that: “The trouble with ethnocentrism is not that it commits us to our own commitments. We are, by definition, so committed and there is no way to escape. The trouble with ethnocentrism – citation by Geertz - is that impedes us from discovering (…) what sort of bat we really are”[8]

Se il mondo incomincia ad essere sempre più un gran “bazar”, per poter vivere meglio nel proprio mondo – se ancora si può parlare di “proprio mondo” - occorre maggiore “etnocentrismo” o serve invece dare più spazio al “relativismo”? Occorre liberare maggiormente le frontiere del proprio ambiente o delimitare di più il proprio campo?

3.1. The contradictions of relativism’s model.

The political claim that everyone deserves the same dignity, isn’t without consequences. According to Kant, the concept of equal dignity is based on the fact that we are rational agents, able to lead our lives following logical and rational principles.

Now, the very expressions equal dignity and equal rights, seems to generate a contradiction, since defending the criterion of equal dignity and equal respect implies annulling the differences. Therefore, only cultural relativism makes it possible to treat everybody in a fair way, but at the same time we must recognize the peculiarities that distinguish the others from ourselves and here lies the contradiction.

When we attribute equal dignity we don’t respect cultural and religious differences; when we acknowledge diversities it is not certain that we will treat everyone equally[9]. Islam offers us a proper example; it conceives equal dignity as a dangerous principle born from a lay and post-religious mentality that impiously divides religion from politics and neglects the values. This is the thesis of Talal Asad: western liberalism doesn’t respect values and religions[10].

4. The crisis of the European model of society.

Wallerstein[11] states that the “world-system” based on Europe is now breaking up. Therefore the crisis of the European model enlarges itself with the difficulties of understanding the meaning of culture and of the relationship among peoples in modern society.

For example, in European society, religion and politics are separated and this model was expected to be adopted all over the world. But that was not the case. Europe in no longer at the centre of the world and doesn’t lay down the law about the separation between religion and politics any more. This is a tragic matter. Many famous authors, especially Indian sociologists, assert that in the post-colonialism Era, Europe has only a “marginal position”, a “secondary role”. It is said that the “trimurti” of post-colonialism is made up by the three great sociologists: : E. Said, H. “Bhabha” and C. “Spivak”. They were the first to theorize the crisis of European culture and have shown how globalization subverts every principle that made Europe great in the past. They carry out a real “deconstruction of nations”, “categories” and “presuppositions” of modern Western identity[12]. But the crisis regards especially the so-called Western rationality that has invented and spread its own categories everywhere in the world.

Let’s examine the following ideas:

History (only Western history is meaningful, Chakrabarty, Hayden White);
Culture (has had produced the concepts of “other” and “race”, from which the racialist ideology has had born, M.Nye);
Religion (no term similar to this exists in other parts of the world; it is a quite ideological Western term, T. Fitzgerald, T. Mc. Cutheon);
Mysticism (denotes essentially what is irrational, R.King, Jantzen);
Orient (Orientalism are words conceived by Western peoples, E. Said, Inden).

We are talking about categories elaborated by Western reasoning which had a strong political power (see Wallerstein and his ethnocentric world-system). We must add also other anti-European authors such as Chakrabarty who wrote Provincializing Europe[13], or Appadurai, who discredits the Western self-promotion patterns of Europe. The same author years ago, wrote Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization[14].

As a consequence, nowadays we perceive a serious uncertainty about the true identity of Europe and its understanding of the world religions. Europe is “marginalized”.

4.1. Does Western Christianity Still Exist?

The central position of Christianity was linked to Europe’s supremacy when “industrialization”, “modernity”, “rationality” were synonyms with political control. At present, Christianity just as Europe, runs the risk of playing a secondary role or of losing its central position face to face with the new world demands.

As a matter of fact we have to admit that Southern World, not Europe, is now the centre of gravity of the Roman Catholic Church. Vocations are more numerous in Southern countries; Christianity is becoming more and more African: a sort of acculturation in the opposite direction[15]. The future of Europe and Christianity seems to be the same: both have lost their central role. See for example O. Roy, in his Holy Ignorance[16] who asks the question: is Christianity still Western?

5. The Easiest Solution.

The Mystic Way. Saint Augustine : It Is Necessary to Exceeding the Places of the Limit. Christian universalism

At present, if we examine the concepts mysticism or spirituality we find what we essentially mean with the expression “Christian universalism”. First of all, mysticism and spirituality are concepts separated from theology and take on a wider, less narrow sense: the wider the extension of signification is, the more flexible and vague are the signified meanings. Mysticism and spirituality are fundamental to best understand our religiousness. For example W. James introduces the term to suggest what belongs to personal and spiritual experience. Living this experience means having a mystic vision.

The Augustinian definition of people reported in De Civitate Dei reflects such universalistic and mystic vision. Augustine shows a predilection for spiritual elements, so, why not to giving assent to a broad and free vision embracing all peoples, respecting their spiritual freedom and their inner values?

In other words, Augustinian universalism is the mysticism of the Christian ou-topos, of the overcoming of all socio-political limits, of the Christian “no-nation.” Therefore it is a mysticism that overcomes the concept of a people as a single reality. When Augustine analyses Roman customs distinguishes Christians from the Roman people not basing on political, juridical or institutional aspects but following only very spiritual criteria and interior dispositions, that is the longing for God and truth. These mere dispositions are sufficient to distinguish the good from the wicked[17]. Hence, the discriminating characteristic about peoples is not their civic and religious belonging, but merely their inner dispositions: authenticity and love for God.

We must base ourselves only on a spiritual vision: this is supposed to be the radical revolution carried out by Christianity and this is the reason why we may define Christians as “world citizens”. Indeed in the Civitas Dei, Christians “peregrinano”, they live in the world as “foreigners” as “pilgrims” waiting to reach the true land.

Besides, according to the Augustinian view, in such contest of the Civitas Dei the community is based on the caritas namely on the inner life.

5.1. Does Augustinian View Conform to the Modern Distinction between Religion and Politics?

The Second Vatican Council seems to corroborate the above-mentioned interpretation because it maintains that the division between politics and religion lets “God’s people” have their own space. Defining the Church as God’s people seems to support a theological-eschatological thesis near to the Augustinian view; in other words, a concept would emerge that is linked to presuppositions different from the juridical-state ones[18]. In conclusion, Christians or the God’s people may be called the “no-nation” people (nos enim sumus non gens) which Origene also talked about[19]. Now it happens that post-modernism has fortified this nearly mystic plurality through the exaltation of subjective and personal spirituality. Hence even the most recent vision points to the spiritual and apofatic deconstruction of places and peoples.

5.2. A Different Scan: Human Nature/Reason. In Search of No-mystic Universalism.

We may speak of universality when human reason and nature meet. The Christianity tends to universalize all questions, to emphasize its truth especially the Christian one and its reference to the universal, immutable moral law. But we know that anthropologists so as many religions assert that human truth is always partial and limited: there are only small truths which correspond to the different behaviors, to the different moral options and to the different cultural- religions views.

May We Validate the Universalism Based on Human Reason and Nature?

J. Ratzinger's thesis

The universality of Christian doctrine is essentially based on the one and autonomous moral law which is supposed to dictate the fundamental principles that all peoples in the world should adhere to, because the reason itself indicates what belongs to human nature and how this acts starting from the idea of creation (S. Thomas Aquinas says: “Natura nihil est aliud quam ratio (…) indita rebus, qua ipsae res moventur ad finem”, cfr. In II Physicorum, 45). Further, the Cathechism of the Catholic Church ( 1992, editio typica 1997), the Veritatis Spendor Encyclical (1993) and also the document of the Theological International Commission (CTI) about Natural Law (2009) consider moral law as a kind of autonomous and rational knowledge of moral duties. They fundamentally repeat the theses stated by S. Thomas in I-II quaestio 99 and ff. where he analyses explicitly natural law in accordance with three principal modalities:

  1. natural law is so called because it is inscribed in human reason (man was created by God);
  2. natural law is participation in eternal law;
  3. everyone may know this law.

Therefore, we might translate the Christian perspective into democracy and liberal state based on the assumption that is sufficient to affirm natural and rational values, trusting in human reason as the mirror of the nature wanted by God.

But then the “divine right” would be in contrast with such a vision.

6. In short: How may We hold together Nature/Reason, Human Laws and Religions “Divine Right”?

The revival of the apofatic medieval pro-Augustinian deconstruction doesn’t mean ensuring a “democracy” and a “liberal state”. We might say that apofatic medieval conception wasn’t only an intellectual critique of the positivist theory but a practice incorporated in a specific way to live the Church community. The Christian mystic tradition doesn’t suggest the idea of an inner private experience, rather invites us to pursue a conscious separation from the world as the only way of life that leads to God. On the other hand we’ve already observed that Umma is at the same time civil-religious law; now, if this law should coexist with the Christian mystic world, infinite and dangerous obstacles would arise. Yet, the equal dignity law sustained by Christian liberalism, which is based on human reason and human nature, doesn’t hold up when confronted with the deeds and rules of other religions. In point of fact we must note that Islamic law orders practices which European nations could never admit, for example: the social custom of polygamy, the rite of infibulations, the principle of woman’s inferiority, the death penalty in case of adultery or blasphemy against Allah or apostasy, a legal system with a religious imprint such as the one attempted in Toronto, would be inconceivable. All these rules collide with natural rights and western democracy. Then, could the merging of two civitates (Dei and hominis) really happen? The former quite spiritual, the latter depending on its own rules? No doubt they share the same spatial-temporal sphere: one might cite the Augustinian example about the relationship between good angels and dethronized ones; two societies and two different, opposite visions: civitas Dei would be grounded in justice and truth, civitas hominis, instead, in cruelty and pride. Augustine’s reflection is relevant since it never identifies civitas Dei with the Church; he rather exalts inner life against external life.

We weren’t accustomed to such multi-cultural and multi-religious outlook but now we have to accept it[20] without forgetting that it is correct to speak of multi-religiousness when the different religions don’t merge but each of them depends on its particular religious world and so inter-religiousness doesn’t take place.

7. The Appeal of Some Religions to Divine Right.

Even if Christianity proposed a mystic-eschatologic way of life, antithetical to a lay vision (with the consequent division between religious and political matters), it would fail since the other beliefs, Islam for example, want to have and really have a strong effect on public life. A Christian mysticism that ideally might to take shape as a liberal vision, is unsuccessful when on the other side there are immutable rules that must be respected in the name of God and his law. The two worlds are destined to be in conflict.


To look for a progressive inter-religiousness as inter-culturalism in every field.
Scientology's example.

The strong point of Scientology is the effort to defend religious principles which are social ideals and therefore are never clashing with cultural principles. There are no opposite values between religion and culture: the former is a mere expression of cultural idealities. Scientology follows some basic principles: freedom, loyalty and equality. Therefore it supports what every society should be like and stand for. Now, I want to establish a basic criterion assuming that the gnostically based religions are favoured over the revealed religions that appel to divine right. To sum up, the Church of Scientology aiming at the improvement of mankind doesn’t contradict any principle in fact it would be a model of a possible cultural-religious integration. It’s sufficient to refer to the Credo of Scientology which is doctrinally fundamental and a sort of “Bill of Human Rights”. The same is true for the eight dynamics: they are nothing but a way to exalt life in all aspects. Of course there may be organizing conflicts but this is inevitable for every aggregation that tries to be different from an established social system. It is imperative that we strive for: 1) multi-culturalism to become more and more inter-culturalism and 2) inter-culturalism to include inter-religiousness.

Aldo N. Terrin
Professor of “Science of Religions”
Papal Institute of Pastoral Liturgy (Padua)


[1] See: C. Geertz, Mondo globale, mondi locali. Cultura e politica alla fine del ventesimo secolo, Il Mulino, Bologna 1999; see also: Antony Giddens, Il mondo che cambia. Come la globalizzazione ridisegna la nostra vita, Il Mulino, Bologna 2000; see also: Edmondo Greblo, A misura del mondo. Globalizzazione, democrazia, diritti, Il Mulino, Bologna 2004.

[2] See totally: P. Valadier, Atene, Gerusalemme, Roma e Cordova. Nazioni e coestistenza dei popoli, in “Hermeneutica” (2013), Popolo e popoli, Morcelliana, Brescia, 45-72, qui 47 e ss.

[3] See: Talal Asad, Religion, Nation-State, Secularism, in P. Van der Veer, H. Lehmann (eds.), Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1999, 178 ss.

[4] See in P. Valadier, cit., 51.

[5] See: C. Geertz, The Uses of Diversity, in “Michigan Quarterly Review” (1986), 105-123.

[6] See: R. Rorty, La filosofia dopo la filosofia: contingenza, ironia, solidarietà, Laterza, Bari-Roma 1989.

[7] See: C. Geertz, The Uses of Diversity, cit., n.18, p.105 (traduzione libera).

[8] See: C. Geertz, The Uses of Diversity, cit., n.18, p. 112.

[9] See: J. Habermas, C. Taylor, Multiculturalismo. Lotta per il riconoscimento, Feltrinelli, Milano 1998, 50 e ss.

[10] See: Talal Asad, Formation of the Secular. Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford University Press, Stanford (CA) 2003.

[11] See: I. Wallerstein, Il sistema mondiale dell'economia moderna, Il Mulino, Bologna 1978.

[12] See fot this also: Aldo N. Terrin, L'Oriente e noi. Orientalismo e post-moderno, Morcelliana, Brescia 2007; vedi anche M. Mellino, La critica post-coloniale. Decolonizzazione, capitalismo e cosmopolitismo nei post-colonial Studies, Meltemi, Roma 2005.

[13] P. Chakrabharty, Provincializzare l'Europa, Meltemi, Roma 2004.

[14] Of Appadurai I cite only the book that is the most pertinent for our study: A. Appadurai, Sicuri da morire. La violenza nell'epoca della globalizzazione, Meltemi, Roma 2005.

[15] See for example: Ph. Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002.

[16] See: O. Roy, La santa ignoranza. Religioni senza cultura, Feltrinelli, Milano 2009, 228 e ss.

[17] See: Agostino, La città di Dio I, 8,2, 91. Traduzione, Introduzione e note a cura di L. Alici, Rusconi, Milano 1992.

[18] See: R. Mazzola, Il concetto di “stato” nelle religioni abramitiche, in G. Filoramo (ed.), Le religioni e il mondo moderno. Nuove tematiche e prospettive, Einaudi, Torino 2009, 19-45, qui 31 e ss.

[19] See: Origene, In psalmum 36, Hom. 1,1, Nardini, Firenze 1991.

[20] See particularly F. GARELLI, L’Italia cattolica nell’epoca del pluralismo, il Mulino, Bologna 2006.