Religion debates in Germany “Politics and Religion: often a confused mixture”

Hans Joas
Hans Joas | Photo (detail): © private

What does politics have to do with religion and values? Goethe.de talked with the sociologist Hans Joas about the religion debates in Germany and the relationship between politics and religion in the Arab world.

Professor Joas, why have recent public debates in Germany about religious issues been so emotional? Think only of the court case about displaying the crucifix in public buildings or last year’s debate about circumcision...

There has always been a great deal of conflict on the secular versus religious front. There have of course been “truces”. But in the recent past the lines have shifted to the extent that it has now become clear the usual expectation, according to which modernisation inevitably leads to secularisation, hasn’t been fulfilled. For example, secularists can no longer regard the religious as simply “backward” people that have supposedly missed the signs of the times and still cling to faith. The result is a certain fear of them or even rage directed against them.

This objection to the secularisation thesis plays an important role in your book “Glaube als Option – Zukunftsmöglichkeiten des Christentums” (i.e., Faith as an Option. Future Perspectives of Christianity). But you also object to another usual thesis, namely that secularisation leads to moral decay. Both theses, you say, are wrong and serve only to entrench the fronts between secularists and the religious. What follows from this for you?

My plea is this: let us carry on a conversation about faith, without mixing politics and religion. Let us carry on a real conversation about the experiences that bring some of us to be believers and others to be deliberate non-believers. In this I must really and honestly share my experiences by acknowledging that others live in other worlds of experience than mine. Only in this way can we really learn from each other. We shouldn’t arbitrarily mix the levels of the conversation.

Religious “front lines” are politically charged

But religious issues are always also treated politically.

Yes, and that complicates the conflict situation: religious “front lines” are often charged with domestic political conflicts. Very often added to this then are foreign policy questions, such as political issues concerning immigration. This frequently gives rise to a very confused mixture. For instance, the integration of Muslim citizens plays an important role in the debates about Muslim traditions and values in Germany. (This resembles, by the way, a similarly heated debate about Catholic immigration in nineteenth century America.) Then there is the charge added by foreign policy – for example, by issues such as “Should Turkey be allowed to join the EU?”, or “What is the threat posed by militant jihadism?”

The latter gives expression to a quite legitimate fear if you consider the development of militant Islam since September 11th ...

Yes, of course, but it’s quite wrong to talk of “Islam” – as wrong as it is to talk of “Christianity”. There’s no one Christianity and there’s no one Islam. These terms are abstractions from an immense variety of immensely various historical, cultural and political phenomena. And I deliberately don’t say “Islamism”, because with this word I always have the feeling that the grave desecrators of Timbuktu are being lumped together in the same category with Mr Erdogan – and that of course can hardly be illuminating.

In public debates one can try not to mix up politics with religion. But there remains the intertwining of politics and values, which can’t be so easily suspended. And aren’t values in turn strongly related to religion?

No, as I tried to show in The Genesis of Values (Die Entstehung der Werte), you can’t simply say that religion plays the most important role in the genesis of values. First of all, people have experiences. These they then judge to be “good” or “bad” or “evil”. From this basis of experience arise values and religions. The values of believers and non-believers need not therefore differ greatly. Some religious people and some secularist share with me moral intuitions such as “Torture is evil”. Thus the front between believers and non-believers isn’t identical with the difference between certain ethical judgements about right and wrong. To give an example: politically, I have nothing in common with Franco’s fascists; I share with them the Catholic faith but not my political values. With other people I don’t have Catholicism in common, but do share with them many values.

Problematic tendency to “self-sacralisation”

In spite of all this, don’t certain values, for example, democratic ones, exclude certain religious traditions? Many people are currently concerned about too strong an alloy of religion in politics in the new democracies of North Africa. What is your view on Islam’s much-discussed “capacity for democracy”?

The mere reference of a political power to a religious tradition as such is not undemocratic, much less anti-democratic. The question “Is Islam capable of democracy” is already an insult and ought no longer to be raised after the rebellions in the Arab world. But many people maintain this because developments following the upheavals don’t correspond to their naive ideas of democratisation. I find problematic here the whole tendency to a steady self-sacralisation of political power, which invariably declares its own given order to be the good order and aggressively devalues all others. This is doubly problematic when you consider that for a long time the “democratic” West used to support the highly corrupt (military) regimes of this world. And now people ask hypocritically: “Why are they still incapable of democracy?” That makes me really angry. We must not forget that in post-war (West) Germany adherence to democratic values would surely not have come about without the “economic miracle”. We don’t know how post-war Germany would have developed if it had remained economically damaged for decades.

Hans Joas is a professor and member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Fellow of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) and full member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. His main areas of interest are social philosophy and sociological theory, particularly with respect to religious subjects, values, war and violence. His major publications include Die Entstehung der Werte (i. e.The Genesis of Values, 1997), Kriege und Werte – Studien zur Gewaltgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts (i.e., War and Values – Studies in the History of Violence in the Twentieth Century, 2000) and Die Sakralität der Person – Eine neue Genealogie der Menschenrechte (The Sacredness of the Person – A New Genealogy of Human Rights, (2011)). His most recent book is Glaube als Option – Zukunftsmöglichkeiten des Christentums (2012) (i.e., Faith as an Option. Future Perspectives of Christianity).