Volker von Prittwitz


Civil Religion

From Twin Tolerations and Laicism to Emphatic Pluralism



Traditionally, there are considerable tensions between religion and the open society: Religion usually is not aligned with open processes, pluralism and equality; it is rather determined by the requirement to accept a certain transcendent truth, the omnipotence of a transcendent power and the requirement to submit to this power. Religions usually explain history, even personal lives and events, as transcendently predetermined. Often they do not comply with social und even juridical norms of the open society, such as the fundamental equality of men and women. And sometimes religious authorities propagate world views that complicate or obstruct a peaceful co-living, for example by praying the withdrawal from society, eschatologically motivated self-destruction, violence or even terrorism.

Once traditional religions get power, they traditionally tend to sanction, to marginalise, or to taboo deviations from their proclaimed truths or norms. Therefore, the closed logic of one religious truth and the logic of the open society of legitimated pluralism and open processes traditionally contrast sharply with one another.

In spite of these tensions, religions can comply with demands of the open society if their representatives and adherents accept procedures and norms of peaceful co-living. Some religiously stabilised values, such as cardinal virtues like honesty or truthfulness, support any society, i.e. also open societies. Certain religious values, particularly the equalization of every person vis-à-vis God in the Abrahamic world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islamism), are similar to basic values of the open society (equality before law). That's why there is a discussion about to what extent religious values have historically been a precondition for the upcoming of the open society (An-Na'im et al. 2007; Stein 2007; Joas 2007).

Indeed, in modern societies socio-political activities, such as taking care of marginalized (ill, poor, homeless) persons, usually are realized by welfare state institutions. However, religious organisations usually maintain substantial influence in this area.  Finally, religious organizations and persons sometimes support certain civil rights even more strictly than other actors do – see the case of church asylum in some European states where churches try to protect the asylum right of certain refugees of their one.


Laicism and Twin Tolerations

Compared with the outlined broad array of relations between religions and open society, the current debate about laicism versus twin tolerations (Stepan 1996, 2007; Minkenberg 2007) is focusing only on certain fundamental power aspects: Laicism, particularly in the form of the French model, propagates separating state and religions strictly. As a result of this separation, state has a strict monopoly of public power while religions are strictly limited to the private sphere. In contrast, Alfred Stepan recommends under the headword twin tolerations to consider religions and states as twins who should tolerate each other. In this approach, a certain scientific approach (looking at religions and states as in principle even, interlocked actors) is connected with a normative conclusion (recommending reciprocal tolerations).

Although the twin tolerations approach seems to comply with common sense and enables comparative studies on different power relations between religions and states, it has one fundamental bias: The core model of the approach is based on a pre-modern feature of a society where the emperor (secular power) was confronted with the pope (religious power). In contrast, the open society historically came up as a means to overcome the deep societal crisis resulting from religiously motivated or religiously legitimated civil wars in Europe. That's why open societies must not be conceived as a confrontation (or reciprocal tolerations) between religion and state. A modern state have to be understood as an institutional complex that allows open and fair access to everybody including different religions.

Laicism on the other side, it's true, points at guaranteeing general access (and other rights) to every citizen. However, religious organisations do not have all civil rights every citizen has. Religions here suffer from a certain form of discrimination. Furthermore the model of Laicism does not reflect religious elements within concepts such as state or republic. That's why none of both delineated approaches should be considered to be sufficient for evaluating the relationship between religions and open society.


Civil Religion

If we come back to what we have discussed in the beginning of this article, we detect another criterion for evaluating the roles of religions in an open society: Does a religion accept the basic procedures and norms of the open society or is it oriented to get dominance or even to destroy the fundamental logic of pluralism and openness? In the latter case, we speak of power oriented, non-civil religion. In case a religion complies with the basic procedures and norms of an open society, we speak of civil religion. For religions of this type operate in a civil manner, like good citizen do, i.e. without violence, accepting open procedures and pluralistic patterns of interests and values.

This adjustment to the open society, however, is only one basic element of civil religion. Going back to Jean Jacques Rousseaus writing contrat sociale (1756), the French term religion civil (in English civil religion) includes not only the requirement of respecting basic norms of peaceful co-living in a republic. The right of every person to unscathed life, human dignity and fundamental social equalization, regardless of gender, faith, religion, nationality, culture, income or other conditions, is also a core element of civil religion. Beyond the adjustment to norms and procedures of the open society, hence civil religion symbolizes and emphasizes basic values and procedures of the open society.

Just this part of the term civil religion, emphatic pluralism, has risen up during the last decades in some world religions, particularly in the Lutheran Christian religion. What has first spread under the headword ecumenism (Ökomene) only amongst different Christian denominations, meanwhile has widened beyond the Christian religion. So, under the headword World Ethos, a project is going on to delineate common ethics of all world religions based on strengthening the necessity of peace and dialogue between religions (Hans Küng). That is: Religion, that since ancient times had been associated with hierarchy and a unified world view, now is opening up to pluralism and heterogeneity. Basic norms of equality, human rights and finally pluralism are going to become core issues not only of political philosophy and the law of nations but also core issues of (civil) religion. Hence, we are experiencing the upcoming of religiously stabilized pluralism. Before the background of this fundamental new development, the question what freedom of religion could mean, have to be discussed in a new way.


Freedom of Religion in the Open Society

According to twin tolerations approach, the discussion about freedom of religions traditionally has focussed on certain areas of religious autonomy. If we take account of adjusting and pluralistic (civil) religions, questions of religious autonomy towards state become less important. Vice versa, giving far-reaching autonomy to non-civil religions whose representatives and adherents fight against the open society, seems to be naive and not responsible in view of  the growing necessity to protect a peaceful, free co-living of different cultures and religions. Therefore, beside the traditionally dominating negative concept of religious freedom (from) also the positive concept of freedom (to) have to be included into the discussion.

In general, we differentiate four basic options to display the term freedom of religion: 1) The individual freedom of faith and religious profession, 2) The freedom of collective worship and (religious) cultus, 3) The freedom of symbolizing a religion in public, particularly in state institutions, 4) The freedom of pursuing political aims based on religious values and norms. Concerning these options, tight concepts of Laicism only accept the individual freedom of religious faith or profession; widened policies of religion also do accept the freedom of collective worship and religious cults. Anyway crucial is the third option, wherein a) conflicts between different religions, b) conflicts between religions and state may be issues. The fourth option seems to be not awkward in an open society where general rights of participation, such as the right to establish parties and political associations, are accepted. But in political practice, there are often restrictions regarding political activities of religious actors.

Taking into account different degrees of religious civility, some aspects of the issue can be discussed more precisely, more distinctly and better understandable: The most awkward question, the question how to deal with non-civil religions, i.e. adversaries or enemies of the open society, leads to two basic requirements: 1) to effectively protect peaceful and free co-living, 2) to preserve open structures (the identity of the open society) as far as possible. According to the conditions in any single case, an optimal balance between both demands has to be found wherein free individual faith should be guaranteed even (religiously or otherwise motivated) enemies of a free society. In contrast, any try to spread out world views, norms and operative plans to destroy the open society cannot be allowed. The headword freedom of religion, so far, should not be a shelter for violence and suppression.

In the open society, religiously motivated citizens do have exactly the same general obligations as any other citizen; there is no juridical or otherwise defined religious autonomy wherein general laws are not in force. On the other side, complying with general procedures and norms of the open society opens up a broader array of religious liberties than hitherto usually discussed: Any person or group that respects the procedural and normative requirements of the open society, is free to act anyway and on any place in the open society. Religiously motivated actors in this sense may use the whole array of human and political rights outside and inside state institutions. There is no wall of separation between religious pluralism and state pluralism, hence no cause for any discrimination of civil religions.

In sharp contrast, there is a distinct tension between traditional non-civil religions, particularly religiously motivated aggressive organizations, and the logic and institutions of the open society. Also those organizations and persons have to be treated without any specially religious discrimination. They rather have to be confronted with general juridical and social requirements of civility. If they hurt those requirements, they have to be forced to comply with by social pressure and strict implementation of general law.

This concept of religion may, at the first glance, seem to be restrictive because religions now are included into the realm of general law and responsibility (bound governance). Looking further, the great advantage, even the necessity of analysing the issue this way becomes clear: In a world where more and more people of different cultures are living together, generally respected core procedures and norms are an existential basis of free, peaceful co-living.  


The author: Prof. Dr. Volker von Prittwitz, Free University Berlin www.volkervonprittwitz.de


Literature and Links:

An-Na'im, Abdullah A/ Gort, Gerald D./Jansen, Henry/Vroom, Hendrik M. (Eds.) (forthcoming): Human Rights and Religious Values. An Uneasy Relationship? Amsterdam (Rodopi).

Joas, Hans (Ed.) (2007): Braucht Werteerziehung Religion? Göttingen (Wallstein)

2) Declaration to a Global Ethic (Hans Küng):


Minkenberg, Michael: Religion and Democracy in a Global Perspective (2007)


Prittwitz, Volker von (2008): Communicating the Open Society communicating_the_open_society.htm

Prittwitz, Volker von (2007): Vergleichende Politikanalyse, Stuttgart (UTB 2871)


Stein, Tine (2007): Himmlische Quellen  und irdisches Recht. Religiöse Voraussetzungen des freiheitlichen Verfassungsstaates, Frankfurt am Main (Campus)

Stepan, Alfred (2007) Democracies, The World Religions and Problems of the Twin Tolerations




Wikipedia: Freedom of Religion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_religion