Monday, 27 January 2014

Religious diversity in a democratic society: some different models

Historically, there are a few different ways in which democratic nations managed to balance two important social and cultural needs:
  • recognising the right of a variety of different religious communities to practice their faith as they see fit, and
  • recognising the right of each citizen to choose the pattern of beliefs and practice (whether religious or non-religious) she/he chooses.
In democratic western societies, there are at least four models of managing religious diversity of which I am aware.

Please note that I am looking here at countries in which two factors are at work:
  • The political and civic culture is democratic, to the extent that governments are chosen by free, fair, and non-violent elections and that, while the majority governs, the rights of minorities are respected and protected. 
  • The religious and philosophical culture is broadly western, in that it has been shaped principally by western traditions of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican, classical "Protestant", Friends, Evangelical, Latter-day Saints, Pentecostal, ...), by Ashkenazic Judaism, and by the secular philosophy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
  • In these countries, individuals are free to choose the faith they follow (if they choose to follow a faith), and the extent of their own personal involvement in the faith they follow.
Other models of managing religious diversity will exist in other societies. 
  • The models in this article may not work all that well to describe societies with an authoritarian political regime. 
  • Neither may these models work effectively to describe communities whose cultures were largely shaped by non-western traditions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or (for that matter) Eastern Orthodox Christianity. 
As a result, the models in this article have their limitations.  They'll be more useful in speaking of some countries than of others.

The first way of managing religious diversity in a democratic society, I call the British model.  It's found in the two larger component nations of the United Kingdom (England and Scotland), as well as in The Netherlands, Belgium, the various Nordic countries, the Republic of Ireland, a few other European countries, and some island nations of the Pacific.

In the British model, all faith communities are completely free to operate, without any state interference.  This freedom applies to communities of all religious traditions.  In all functional ways, the various faith communities operate on an equal footing to each other.  Each citizen has full rights to maintain his/her beliefs (or lack of beliefs), without any loss of ability to participate in the wider community as a result. 

However, in countries following the British model, one faith community will receive some formal privileges within the public space as representing the religious aspirations of the culture.  These formally recognised (or "established") faith communities would include the Church of England (Anglican), the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the Reformed Church in The Netherlands, Lutheran churches in the Nordic countries, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and Belgium, and Methodism in Tonga and Fiji.

The second model of managing religious diversity I call the American model.  As far as I can see, it's only found in the United States.

In the American model, all faiths are on an equal footing.  All faiths are free to operate without any official interference.  No faith is given an "established" status.

There is a general public affirmation that religion (by which I mean all religious communities) is good for the community.  While there are no legal sanctions against those who opt out of religious faith and practice, there is a suspicion in some circles toward a person who is openly non-religious.

In all of this, however, there are some strict "no-go areas" for religion under the American model:
  • One "no-go area" is public education.  Religious teaching and religious worship does not take place in schools provided by governmental bodies.
  • The other "no-go area" would be entertainment-oriented films and television.  While there are some notable exceptions ("The Simpsons", the Bartlet family in "The West Wing" ...), American movies, American TV dramas, and American TV comedies rarely depict their characters engaged in practicing a religious faith, even characters for whom religious practice would suit the character.

The third model is the French model.  In addition to France, versions of this model are found in a few other European countries and in some Latin American countries.  It's found in its most highly developed and most highly sustained form in France.  (Aspects of the French model were practiced in some countries in the Islamic world - such as Turkey - when officialdom was seeking to secularise and westernise their countries rapidly.)

In the French model, all faiths are on an equal legal footing, individuals can generally practice their faith, but there is a general attitude of official contempt toward religion on the part of politicians, bureaucrats, other manifestations of officialdom, and the culture in general.  This contempt often takes the form of various nuisance restrictions on some outward expressions of religious practice.

While the worst contempt is frequently reserved for whichever faith was the nation's traditional majority faith, the French model tries to share the contempt around.  (For example, the recent ban in France on Muslim women wearing hijabs or Jewish men wearing yarmulkes in classrooms and government offices is not that dissimilar to some of the nuisance restrictions placed upon Catholicism by some elements of French officialdom over the years.)

There's a fourth model to use in managing religious diversity.  I call it the Australian model (although it could just as easily be called the Canadian model, the New Zealand model, or the Welsh model).

This model is very simple. 
  • All faith communities are free to operate. 
  • No faith community has an "established" status. 
  • While there are some bigoted individuals trying to make it otherwise, there is no stigma attached to an individual being either religious or non-religious. 
  • While there are some bigoted individuals trying to make it otherwise, there is no stigma attached to a religious individual being part of one faith community or another. 
  • All faith communities have equal access to the public space. 
  • No faith community has the right to claim a privilege not given to any other faith community.

There are some people in Australia who would prefer some other model to the Australian model.
  • There are some on the cultural "right" who'd like to see us revert to the British model, as long as their own faith community gets "establishment" status.
  • There are some on the cultural "left" who'd like to see us adopt some form of the French model, particularly if the most withering Gallic sneers are pointed in the direction of whichever faith community they grew up within - and later rejected.
  • There are some others who just assume - perhaps because of the influence of American television - that we already work from the American model anyway.
However, I believe the Australian model (or - to give it its full name - the Australian - Canadian - New Zealand - Welsh model) has a lot going for it.  It is far less limiting than either the British, American, or French models:  for faith communities, for individuals of faith, for non-religious individuals, and for the broader society. 

For countries that use this model, let's keep it.

For countries that use some other model, why not consider it?


  1. I noticed your own subjective comment which is in itself a bigoted statement: "•While there are some bigoted individuals trying to make it otherwise".

    1. However, Brien, in the context of my original statement, I would say that stigmatising a person merely because he/she is either "religious" or "non-religious" would, by definition, be a bigoted act.

    2. I really believe it would be tragic if Australia followed either the American model, where people did not feel really free to be "non-religious", or the French model, where people did not really feel free to be "religious".


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