REVIEW #8: Freedom, State, and Religious Education: In Search of Common Ground

If an outsider takes a look at the religious landscape in Europe, a variety of odd or even schizophrenic behaviors may be observed. On the one hand, some people claim that they do not believe in God, while on the other, they get caught up in the Christmas shopping frenzy. They neither attend masses nor pray; yet they are excited about Eastern spiritual practices, and so they practice yoga instead. They distance themselves from religious symbols, but end up wearing yin and yang on at-shirt. They do not wish to be preached to, yet they are happy to quote the Dalai Lama on random occasions.

These practices show that people of the West tend to regard themselves as spiritual but not religious. It also proves that many Europeans, and Americans too, are giving up traditional churches and turning towards spirituality and Eastern tradition.

Although the Western societies are commonly perceived as secular, they exhibit a need of spirituality. Some may say that religion is a private matter, but when a religious fundamentalist commits a crime religion comes out as a destructive power to European values. Sometimes we forget that European values have their origins in Christian tradition, with institutions such as schools and universities originally being funded and run by the church. From this perspective, Samuel Huntington’s thesis about the clash of civilization is still valid, and religion itself plays a leading role in shaping political, sociological, and cultural discourse.1

Secularization of the State and Searching for Spirituality

According to Peter Berger, modern societies are increasingly secular and plural.2 However, it cannot simply be said that ‘God is dead’ – god still lives, maybe not just the Christian God. This means that people are not atheists sui generis, rather they search for a god or gods and they find him/her/them in different places, not solely in the traditional, hegemonic Church.3

A traditional church – be it Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran – has long been losing its privileged position in the society since the Reformation, Industrial Revolution, and especially after WWII.4 Sociologist Thomas Luckmann argues that religion is a private matter, god is silent, and that religion no longer plays a crucial role in public discourse. It must be noted that secularization may be understood as a decline in the role that the Church plays in the Western, liberal state and society.5 This does not indicate, however, any struggle with the Church, but rather signifies that it is being ignored and that societies live according to the “etsi deus non daretur6 principle.

Nevertheless, people in the West do not resort to apostasy; rather, they abandon traditional religious practices and rituals. Many of them believe that living without God is possible and may perhaps be even better. In his teachings, philosopher Leszek Kołakowski emphasized that faith and religion help human beings overcome every-day absurdities, and may calm existential fears.7 This may be the reason why people tend to exhibit a wide range of spiritual practices in the form of myths, legends, esoteric neo-pagan traditions, and off-trail healing methods.

These forms of spirituality are competitive to traditional church. People move away from traditional churches and religious rituals, but they still search for non-material values for some kind of spiritual experiences. This trend was confirmed in the Pew Research Centre survey conducted in the United States – 37% of Americans regard themselves as spiritual but not religious. These people are not affiliated to any religious institution.8

The term “spiritual but not religious” has become very popular, recently gaining more and more supporters across the West.9 Traditional church is an impostor to these people, while new forms of spirituality offer – just like a free market – many choices and lifestyles. Terence Copley describes spirituality in a rather interesting manner stating that it is “like Lycra underwear according to its advertising claims, spirituality can could itself to fit any personal contour. It is assumed that individuals are expected to conform to a religion and its doctrines: religion is perceived as a take-it-or-leave-it affair. You fit in or you don’t. Spirituality is the bespoke tailoring of the personal life, with oneself as the tailor. Spirituality is moving all the time and cannot be captured in a net or formula”.10

Citizenship, Religion, and Freedom: Strange Bedfellows or Long-Term Partners?

The terms ‘religious’ and ‘religion’ have numerous definitions based on concepts grounded in various disciplines, but what about ‘secular’ and ‘secularization’? These signify something more than a sheer lack of religious institutions in the state and society. Marius Felderhof, a scholar from the University of Birmingham, argues that “prior to a modern period, religion was simply what everyone did, i.e. it was how they lived”.11 Following Reformation, the word ‘secular’ emerged and shaped the socio-political aspects of human life.

1 Huntington, S. (1993) “The Clash of Civilizations”, [in:] Foreign Affairs, Volume 72, No. 3.

2Berger, P. (1967) The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, Garden City New York: Doubleday & Company Inc.

3See, for example: De Castella, T. (2013) “Spiritual, but Not Religious”, [in:] BBC News Magazine, January 3. Available [online]:;

Tan, C. (2013) “Why Do Brits Seek Eastern Spirituality When They Have So Much of Their Own?”, [in:] The Spectator, February 16. Available [online]:

4Chadwick, O. (1975) The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;

Gellner, E. (1992) Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. London and New York: Routledge;

Habermas, J. (2006) “Religion in the Public Sphere”, [in:] European Journal of Philosophy, Volume 14, Issue 1;

Luckman, T. (1967) The Invisible Religion: the Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York: MacMillan.

5Eaude, T. (2012) “Spiritual and Moral Development” [in:] Debates in Religious Education, L.P. Barnes (ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

6 Even if God did not exist.

7Kołakowski, L. (2001) The Presence of Myth. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

8Per Research Center (2012) “Nones” on the Rise. Available [online]:

9Heelas, P. (2009) Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism. UK: Blackwell Pubishing, p. 83.

10 Copley, T. (2005) Indoctrination, Education and God. The Struggle for the Mind. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

11Felderhof, M. (2012) “Secular Humanism”, [in:] Debates in Religious Education, L. P. Barnes (ed.). London and New York: Routledge, p. 146.