Battle in Print: The resurrection of religion: Moving beyond secularism or losing faith in politics?

François Houtart interviewed by Alex Hochuli, 15 November 2007

Alex Hochuli: There has been much academic and public discussion over the past few years over the idea that the process of secularisation, witnessed over the past century or two, may have come to an end. How do you understand the secularisation thesis and do you think it still holds true?

François Houtart: I think that it is true, but at the same time it is not. It’s not true in the sense that the ‘religious factor’ has proved to be a lot more important than those who thought of secularisation as an endless process would have thought. We have seen this in the Islamic world but also in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere with the importance of new religious movements. We can also witness the importance attributed to certain personalities of religious bodies, such as Pope John Paul II or the Dalai Lama. So in that sense it’s true that the religious factor has not disappeared and has even become more important than before. From another point of view, though, I think that the consciousness of the importance of the separation of state and religion, or state and church - what in French we more specifically call laïcité - has also increased. If the latter is what we identify as secularisation, then I think from that point of view we have indeed seen some advance in that area, both in public opinion and also in concrete terms.

Do you find that this trend holds true for the majority of the world?

Well, it is definitely more particular to the West, though not totally absent in other parts of the world. If we take, for example, the Islamic world again, at the same time that we see the increasing importance of Islamist movements, we see also within the Muslim world a growing body of opinion about the necessity of separating religion and state.

So is this a retreat of religion from public life rather than a decline in faith?

Absolutely - it is a decline in the exercising of religious power in society. Of course, I do not think that this is completely absent, because movements such as the Opus Dei in the Catholic church think that in order to evangelise you must exercise power. So they would completely reject the idea. But from another point of view, the existence of multiculturality in certain societies implies that the state does not privilege any particular religion.

So how do you square this apparent resurgence of religion, or at least the continuing importance of the ‘religious factor’, with the contemporary postmodern ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’?

Yes, that is another matter. In this era of postmodern thinking, any kind of institution is seen in a negative light, and any attempt at a more total explanation of life and society is rejected. So in this sense it’s true that there is a tendency in the secular Western world towards a more individualistic type of religion, detached from the institutional aspects, or at least from the most dogmatic expressions of it. But although this is a reality, it is principally true for the West.

The rejection of institutions and of any narrative system is not only the case for religion. I see it also very clearly in the social sciences. In this way of thinking, there is only the possibility of explaining one small narrative expression to others; to help different narrative realities understand each another. But the social sciences are not seen as able to explain society - that approach is rejected. So what we see in the social sciences and in some other studies also holds true for religion.

In this case, how do you interpret the critique of the Enlightenment?

I understand very well the critics of the Enlightenment in that it brought, at least from a certain perspective, a belief in science and unending progress. What we are facing today, especially with regard to ecology and climate, shows that this kind of orientation and interpretation of the Enlightenment can be very dangerous for mankind. But also from the economic point of view, the whole logic of the capitalist system is driving towards some very damaging consequences. So in that sense the critics of the Enlightenment I think are justified. However, at the same time the critique of the Enlightenment is used to revert to a way of thinking that rejects any kind of analytical vision of the world, of nature and of society, which serves the concrete interests of very conservative forces. So we have to analyse this attitude towards the Enlightenment (which can be a valid critique) but only on the condition that we don’t accept a postmodern type of thinking which is actually the most functional for the current economic system, which today is becoming a structure and a universal system. I think that, for this system, the best thing is to have an ideology which negates the very existence of systems. Taking all this into account, we do have to take some distance vis-à-vis the critiques of the Enlightenment. Also, from a political perspective, we see very conservative forces criticising the Enlightenment, but for different reasons.

On the other hand, how do you understand the current championing of the Enlightenment by some you might also term ‘conservative’?

Well, precisely, we also have this extremist vision - a certain problematic understanding of the Enlightenment as the possibility of answering all the environmental and human problems with science, without challenging the economic system.

Another Enlightenment value - toleration - is particularly salient in regard to religion. What do you make of this concept and of what could be called its contemporary incarnation, ‘respect’?

There is a very interesting distinction there. I feel that ‘respect’ is a better attitude than mere toleration. Respect means that you accept that there are, what we could call in between brackets, ‘positive values’ in other cultures, in other religions, in other philosophies. ‘Tolerating’ is just ‘you must coexist’. In that sense, I think respect is a much better expression of what we should advocate. I have just been in Ecuador attending conferences on twenty-first century socialism. This is something that not only Hugo Chavez but also the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, have been speaking a lot about. In reflecting about the content of twenty-first century socialism I have always defended the idea that one aspect of this should be multiculturality. This means giving the opportunity to every culture, philosophy, religion - every ‘knowledge’ - to construct this new type of society. That is real multiculturality, where one can construct a society in which there is equality and democracy, where use-value is prior to exchange-value, and where there is a respect of nature. We need the conditions in which to construct that type of society of the future - where there is the possibility of contributions from many cultures, religions, etc.

Is there not a problem that multiculturalism may run contrary to universalism?

Well, it could. It’s true that there is a certain contradiction there. From my experience in Ecuador, those pushing for change (the president included) are now looking at indigenous people as individual persons - whether peasants or the poor - and in trying to work for the welfare of those people they see them as citizens. But the indigenous people claim that they want to be recognised as a people, not only as individuals, because they live as a distinct people with their own culture, language and religion. There is a real tension between both approaches. But I think that neither should be emphasised over the other because there cannot be a solution otherwise. The idea of a certain unity of all citizens in a nation is of course very important, but at the same time we have to recognise that groups like these indigenous people have reality as a group. The problem is to find equilibrium between both. There can be a certain fundamentalism in specificity, in the concept of being a special entity. This can result in nationalism, in a very great deal of exclusion. But at the same time what we see in France, for example, is a certain fundamentalism of laïcité and of Jacobinism which fails to respect others in their whole reality.

How does what you’ve just described fit with the apparent resurgence of religion you discussed earlier? How does multiculturalism interact with religion?

The question of women and young girls wearing the veil has been the subject of a very long debate in this part of Europe - in France, Belgium, etc. It’s interesting for me to see that it is more a question of identity than religion, or at least a religious form of identity, much more than a truly religious issue. We can see the same in many areas. That’s why the policy of prohibiting the veil in certain circumstances in France is to an extent provoking the contrary result. Many see the policy as an offence to their identity and to the Arabic world and to Islam (which is, of course, because they don’t often make much distinction between them). In conclusion, it is more an issue of identity than of religion.

How do you respond to this problem - what do you propose?

Cultural facts do not change by decree and by law. I understand that the veil may be a problem because it can be an offence to the women themselves - a sign of submission and so on. But if you try to impose a change (and I see this even amongst my students here) it just provokes the contrary. Girls who never used to wear the veil are now wearing it. So the issue for me is not to enforce change by law and by decree, but to create an atmosphere of acceptance which after a while will probably make the phenomenon disappear by itself.

You mentioned fundamentalism earlier. What do you make of the challenge posed to liberal society by movements such as Islamism or fundamentalist Protestantism around the world?

Well I think these are precisely two extremes. The economic system, the extreme materialisation of life and consumer culture, is provoking that kind of reaction. Take for example Latin America or Africa where I see new religious movements which are generally Pentecostal and quite fundamentalist: I see them as a reaction against social disorganisation and as providing a new meaning in life. This is an answer to a real question, a real problem. I think they find the wrong solution, but it is a real problem nevertheless. So the real question is to find a genuine solution to those problems. Now, I don’t want to be too deterministic - culture and religious reality are not just linked mathematically with the economic and political system. But as a whole, what we witness in the world today is a very fundamental social disorganisation and lack of meaning because of economic under-development, inequality, etc. So the answer is first to organise society in such a way as to make it possible for every person and every social group to be recognised and have a normal life; secondly, to have a society that is open enough, from the cultural point of view, to the expression of religious faith - but this religious faith must be based on an option, an option given to people, with the necessary institutions.

And where do you see this answer coming from today?

For the moment, from Latin America. I see it in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, at least in terms of providing some concrete answers. A critique already exists in more or less developed forms. We need to begin to have new answers which are not simply the total destruction of the capitalist system, because that is just impossible for the moment. I hope this process will continue because it is still very vulnerable. One practical solution, for example, is to organise the integration of Latin America, not on the basis of capitalist principles, but on the basis of solidarity and complementarity, such as the ALBA (Footnote 1) (as opposed to the ALCA (Footnote 2) which was an integration of the North American economies). There are other aspects like the recuperation of sovereignty over natural resources like petroleum, etc. This doesn’t change the capitalist system, but they are the first steps. There is also the issue of solidarity in other areas; take the example of Operation Milagros. This is a project to provide eye surgery, performed by Cuban doctors abroad, and supported financially by Venezuela. People are so poor that they do not have access to such treatment in their own countries (it’s even open to the United States!) More than 200,000 people have been treated in little over a year. This is an interesting case because it is not based on the idea of competition but on solidarity. And that is contrary to the principles of the capitalist system.

Finally, do you see religion as important to providing an ethical foundation for the sort of alternatives you’ve just described?

I see it as very important. I was recently at a seminar in Ecuador at the Church of the Poor where the theme was faith and politics. It was interesting to see how ordinary people - peasants, Indians, workers, and also some teachers - experience the necessity of giving a new dimension to their faith, and also of giving to the Christian faith the possibility of making a certain contribution to the transformation of society. I also see this in people like Rafael Correa; I see it in Hugo Chavez - they are very convinced that the Christian faith has something to bring to the orientation of the new societies they want to construct. Recently Hugo Chavez told me again that ‘we must construct it with Christ!’ His faith is perhaps not very elaborate from a theological point of view, but he is quite sincere. So I think that it’s possible, perhaps even necessary, to have this contribution of religious faith and belief - not only with regard to Christianity but other religions as well. It is perhaps only a minority who think like this, but it is still very important.


François Houtart is emeritus professor of sociology at the Universite Catholique de Louvain, Belgium and founder of CETRI (Le Centre Tri-Continental), a Belgian think-tank. He is founder of the journal Alternatives Sud and former director and founder of the international review of the sociology of religion, Social Compass. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1949 and has since been an expert at the Vatican II Council. Prof Houtart is executive secretary of the World Forum for Alternatives and an active member of the World Social Forum. He is the author of over 30 books.


1. ALBA: Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas).

2. ALCA: Área de Libre Comercio de las Américas (Free Trade Area of the Americas).

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