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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds If we embark on what many students do first when having to define a term - namely, search the Internet - and look for “open society,” the first link we find is one to the Open Society Foundations by controversial financial investor George Soros. These work, as we can read in their mission statement, to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people. It is not surprising that they use the term “open society”, once coined by the philosopher Karl Popper. Drafted in 1945, so after the end of the Second World War and the collapse of national socialism, Popper aimed to keep states and their governments in check.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds While, for Popper, religious neutrality was one element of open societies, religion is not mentioned in the mission statement of the Open Society Foundations. Does that mean now that religion does not play a role anymore in public life? The so-called “secularisation theory” has been subject of scientific debates since the late 19th century. And how far religion has indeed been marginalised by processes of modernisation was never easy answered and has been reconsidered again in the last 20 years. Did religion change or just the role of church institutions? Did religious beliefs decline? Do people visit church less often in certain regions? What’s, thus, the role and relevance of religion changing?

Skip to 1 minute and 42 seconds And was that a personal matter, or did it have implications for public life? Especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the ideas of a secular society and of a secular Europe as a special case were revisited. Jurgen Habermas, whose theories of public sphere and discourse rest on the rational exchange of ideas and the success of the most convincing arguments and who was, thus, sceptical of religious beliefs, contributed to new conceptualisations. In the wake of the new popularity of Hinduism and Buddhism, of Pentecostal and Orthodox churches throughout the globe, in the wake also of new religious fundamentalism, Habermas engaged in the debate on a post-secular age. Here, he conceded the importance of religious groups as interpretive communities in the public discourse.

Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds Later this week, we will discuss the different roles religion can play in European countries– focusing on France and Germany. With regard to the latter case, we will hear that one way to understand the state is as an arena within which religion is practised and discussed. The state allows for religious education at schools and universities, and it does so within the framework of the basic law which grants the freedom of religion and belief. This is a consequence also of national socialism within which religion was suppressed and reason for persecution and murder. After the end of the Second World War, state representatives as well as large churches concluded that public debate must be fostered and upheld.

Skip to 3 minutes and 31 seconds As one provision, Protestant and Catholic academies started to provide arenas for different society and public political groups to meet and discuss. The so-called “refugee crisis” and the reactions to the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels show how important and how difficult these discussions are. In 2008 already, Habermas warned that the state should not reduce the polyphone complexity of the public diversity of voices in a pre-mature manner by excluding those from the public discourse who use a religious language. So while we can leave the question of post-secularism and the competing countermodels aside here, we are led to the central question with regard

Skip to 4 minutes and 19 seconds to the current public debate: namely, how can we discuss identity and participation in an inclusive non-essentialist manner?

Defining open society

In this video, Dr Lars Klein defines the terms secularism and open society and asks the question: how can we discuss identity and participation in an inclusive, non-essentialist manner?

In 1959, the sociologist C. Wright Mills came up with the so-called ‘secularisation theory’, which stated that the decline of religion the West had been experiencing would continue and possibly lead to the disappearance of it altogether. Processes such as modernisation and industrialisation, coupled with atrocities as the two world wars and the Holocaust, removed God from the world. Or so the theory goes.

In the last twenty years, philosophers and scholars of religion have joined in a debate on the renewed role of religion in public life in the West. Jürgen Habermas, one of Germany’s most prominent philosophers, joined this debate on the ‘post-secular age’. We can find evidence for that in renewed religious fundamentalism, but also in such trends as the increased popularity of Buddhism and meditation techniques.

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European Culture and Politics

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