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Religion, Society And Pluralism – Analysis


One of the most important controversies in our societies today is about the cultural diversity that continues to grow within these institutions.

Pluralism is a complex reality. It refers both to the existence of a growing diversity of religions and beliefs in the context of contemporary “open” societies, thus a social “fact”, but also to a political ideal increasingly characteristic of advanced democracies, which ensures that religious diversity does not reinforce social inequalities or create new ones.

The Vital Question Of Pluralism

The question of pluralism comes first in that it is the founding fact of our modern societies. It is on the premise of the legitimacy of a plurality of forms of life, value systems, convictions and beliefs that the society resulting from the dismemberment of the ancient world was established. This plurality, at first experienced as inevitable because of the collapse of religious unity, was then conceived as a value, and the notion of pluralism came to mean the positive qualification of plurality. 1

At the foundation of our modern societies, pluralism remains a political, social, religious and epistemological issue. Indeed, it is not self-evident that plurality is preferable to unity: Western philosophical tradition has long asserted the opposite, since the solution given to the aporia of the one and the multiple has been to unify thought and the universe under a transcendent principle that guarantees both the primacy of the one and the reliability of the multiple.2 But the fact remains that, particularly since the invention of individualism and voluntarism, pluralism has become the foundation of living and knowing together, and it is on this conviction of the naturalness and primacy of pluralism that liberal democracy has been built.

Even if one accepts the rules of the game imposed by liberalism, the question of the limits of pluralism continues to arise, first and foremost, since so-called comprehensive doctrines are excluded from the debate and are only tolerated insofar as they remain confined to the private sphere. And even in this space, tolerance is not complete, since the state prescribes or prohibits a certain number of behaviours. This is why we have been able to speak of the “paradox of liberal justification”, which holds that liberalism is based on the premise that all individuals can share its premises, while the social plurality engendered by liberal society itself reduces the likelihood that such sharing is accessible. 

According to an author such as John Gray,3 liberalism and pluralism are in fact incompatible since the former asserts the constant priority of individual freedom and autonomy while the latter posits that no one value can in all circumstances take precedence over any other.4 Liberalism must thus renounce any universalist justification of its principles or risk denying them. According to William Galston, on the contrary, pluralism implies liberalism because the promotion of individual autonomy appears to be the indispensable condition for conferring value on the various conceptions of the good life that confront each other.5

Finally, it is known that John Rawls establishes his theory of justice on the promotion of a criterion of reasonableness that is binding on comprehensive doctrines and enjoins them not only to share the common liberal political conception, established independently of the various visions of the good, but even more to implement it from their own premises, which must be translated into the liberal language.6

The new fact facing both the philosopher and the legislator is indeed that of a different kind of religious pluralism. Contemporary experience is no longer that of conflicts within Christianity or of the hegemony of the Catholic Church threatening the authority of the State, but of the integration of Islam, a religion characterized by orthopraxis,7 the importance of collective ritual practices, and not only individual faith, which poses problems of a completely different order. Is secularism as it was imposed in France still relevant to these problems, as it was at the time of the religious quarrel at the beginning of the twentieth century, or is it no longer compatible with the pluralist democracy of the twentieth century? Is it, in particular, capable of guaranteeing the equality of all citizens, religious or not? Does it still represent the best solution for ensuring civil peace and the allegiance of citizens to the institutions and values of pluralist democracy?

A frequently heard argument is that the problem is that pluralism no longer seems to be about competition between religions or beliefs that are compatible with each other and share a common cultural heritage that is easily identified as such. While modern democratic states shared a common religious identity, that of the Christian tradition, this is no longer the case with Islam and its varied traditions from the Maghreb to the Middle East, from South-East Asia to sub-Saharan Africa. 

Beyond the growing numerical importance of populations with a religious practice and thus refractory to contemporary secularism, it is above all the non-European, non-Christian, mostly Muslim character of beliefs and practices that seems to create major difficulties for the collective identity. The latter seems to be under threat, these threats are exploited politically and it then becomes impossible to serenely protect the equal rights and freedoms of citizens who are separated and even opposed not only by their socio-economic conditions, their culture, but also by their faith and religious practices. 

Respect for religious pluralism is certainly a central element of a free society, as is tolerance towards minorities and the refusal to allow one religion to dictate its values to an entire society. But this respect finds its limits when it seems impossible to separate religious affiliation and social problems from immigration in an amalgam that assumes that religious differences prevent integration. Confronted with unknown cultural phenomena, torn between the concern to preserve their national identity and the concern to respect the equality of citizens despite their different affiliations, contemporary democracies, particularly in continental Europe, seem unable to escape universalist intellectual frameworks, such as that of “France, homeland of the universal” (Jules Michelet),8 and historical patterns that all predicted the progress of secularisation. They appear disarmed in the face of this new religious pluralism.

The problem, however, is not really the cultural differences conveyed by Islam, but rather the way in which the integration of religious minorities in a secular state is approached. Major difficulties are looming on the horizon, all linked to the dominant rationalist schema, which proves incapable of understanding and correctly interpreting deeply problematic behaviours and demands for secularism because of their rejection of secularisation and a strictly individualistic conception of religious freedom, the important role played by the community and their demand for a public role for religion. More than the supposed impossibility of Islam to integrate, it is the inability of secularism to understand religious pluralism that is the problem.

The crucial point for respecting pluralism is that such a consensus should not be built directly on values, but, Rawls tells us, by overlapping consensus, by personal reasoning that relates democratic values to the particular values of a particular religion. The important thing is that there is even partial overlap. The example is the consensus on the Constitution, for Rawls. 9 

Martin Luther King’s defence of equal civil rights for Blacks could use religious arguments: the equality of all human beings created in the image of God. But in addition to these non-public reasons, he could appeal to public reasons, those arising out of the Constitution, such as the 1954 decision declaring segregation unconstitutional. The essential point to allow this entry of religions into the public space is that they can be mediated by constitutional values that are acceptable and understandable to all citizens, which provide them with a common idiom, transcending the pluralism of values.

Religion And Freedom

To place reflection on religion in relation to reflection on society and culture is neither to attack nor to defend, it is not even to draw a parallel between the natural order and the supernatural order, it is rather to welcome the cultural dimension of religion and its social significance, and thus to situate oneself within the framework of an inculturation of faith where communication is a two-way street, from religion to society and culture, and from culture and society to religion.10 

It is not only to reflect on what the Christian faith can bring to cultures and human societies, but also on what the sets of human life in which this faith is always called to a new birth can bring to a deepening of this faith. It means renouncing the pursuit of the ghost of a naked Christianity, thought of as timeless and free from all contamination with human history. Honouring the three terms of the triptych also means not conceiving the last two as inevitable but embarrassing data. It is really a matter of understanding and illuminating the links between these three terms and what each brings to the understanding of the other two, with equal dignity and importance.

Reducing religious freedom to the sole freedom of conscience, which would be made an absolute, is a final error of modern individualism. It is a fundamental thesis in the Catholic Church : without free will, without the freedom to choose, faith has no value. Individual freedom must therefore be protected against the powers of external constraint and interference, what is traditionally called a “negative freedom”. 

This also implies, and this is where the problems begin, that the individual has the right to change religion or even to renounce any religion. With such a desocialized and apolitical conception of religious freedom, one refrains from understanding and anticipating the conflicts of rights and freedoms that its exercise entails. How can we intervene in religious communities and in the name of which conception of justice to, for example, impose respect for individual rights if we maintain that religion is limited to private faith? Is it not contradictory to recognize the absolute rights of conscience, as in the case of conscientious objection, and to deny them in the case of a request for a place of worship, because in the latter case the claim is collective, not individual, and meets with insurmountable political objections? 

What religious pluralism obliges us to note is that religious freedom is a double freedom, a “private” freedom to follow the imperatives of one’s conscience, but also a “public” freedom to follow the teachings and practices of one’s community that can participate in political consensus or, on the contrary, destabilize it. It is unacceptable not to recognize this duality and to want to play both sides. 

The rights of religious citizens must be of equal value to those of others, which implies treating them as political rights. Religious freedom goes beyond the framework of conscience and private space as soon as it is a question of orthopraxis and not only of faith or adherence of conscience. It has very important consequences in terms of demography, education, family structure, political participation, economic activity, and so on. It cannot be treated as a matter of private preference.

Religious Freedom

It seems to us relevant to quote a very enlightening extract from the Declaration on Religious Freedom, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council on December 7, 1965 and known as DIGNITATIS HUMANAE 11:

“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.” (2).

Later on, however, the text specifies that :

“The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society : hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility.

Furthermore, society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion. It is the special duty of government to provide this protection. However, government is not to act in an arbitrary fashion or in an unfair spirit of partisanship. Its action is to be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order. These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality.

These matters constitute the basic component of the common welfare: they are what is meant by public order. For the rest, the usages of society are to be the usages of freedom in their full range : that is, the freedom of man is to be respected as far as possible and is not to be curtailed except when and insofar as necessary. ” (7).

In light of this Vatican II declaration, we believe that the principle of separation between religions and the state does not abolish the citizenship of religions in a democratic and pluralistic society. It is, however, necessary to mark the public expression of religious fact in a way that is both respectful of the fundamental principle of religious freedom and of the right to freedom of religion. freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, while fully honouring the principle of secularism of the State.

It is important to preserve, within public institutions, respect for the religious convictions of the individuals who work, frequent or call upon their services, as well as the possibility for these people to be able to live in accordance with their religious precepts – when this, obviously, does not contradict the mission of these institutions. This respect must therefore be weighed against the rights of the other persons concerned, the rights recognised as fundamental in our society and the institutional purposes. In this respect, state support and resources are needed to accompany the managers who, in the majority of cases, carry the entire burden of the responsibility for discernment and decisions. 

In addition, it is important to promote education of youth and citizens to a better understanding of religious phenomena, in the to promote living together.12 The proposed programs must be designed in such a way that respectful of religious traditions, but not denominational. 

Another Way Of Thinking The Religious

Democratic pluralism therefore takes seriously the irreducible plurality of religious beliefs and rejects both the Christian path of “common ground” and the anti-religious path of militant secularism. Pragmatically, it accepts the possibility of a public expression of religious freedom, of a recognition of the contribution of religions to the common normative model, if this allows for better integration and greater equality of treatment of citizens, whether religious or not. Above all, it is more lucid in recognizing the impossibility of neutrality and ultimate reconciliation between the values and world views defended by the various religions.

Three aspects of this intellectual revolution have consequences for a pluralistic treatment of religion.

First of all, religious belonging, like cultural belonging, takes on a new dignity because the human level par excellence which is now privileged is that of “contexts of meaning,”13 of “communities of justification”14, which combine belonging to a group and individual choices endowed with meaning. The recognition and enhancement of religious belonging that have been overshadowed by three centuries of abstract rationalism and triumphant universalism represent considerable intellectual and political victories in terms of respect for the human condition, even if they give rise to new difficulties.

Secondly, respect for religious affiliation extends to the communities themselves. The humiliation and contempt to which they can be subjected generate a new kind of social suffering which is at the heart of the concerns of a truly democratic society. Commitments that identify the person and his or her customs and beliefs, traditions and ways of life are devalued, even condemned, when the group, history or lifestyles to which the person belongs are humiliated. In order to regain dignity in their own eyes, immigrants will have to change their identity and adopt a borrowed identity, to assimilate. A “decent” democratic society, as Avishai Margalit 15 puts it, must seek to prevent this alienation and minimize the humiliation of its most vulnerable citizens.

Finally, the relationship between reason and religion is transformed. Linked to the critique of monological reason and the recognition of the pluralism of values, religious belonging makes sense and is no longer equally frightening. It is no longer the unthinkable, even if it remains difficult to understand. Habermas’s critique of monological reason, Rawls’s critique of amoral and “neutral” political consensus, Charles Taylor’s critique of the cultural homogeneity necessary for democracy played a key role in understanding how religious communities could be part of a “reasonable” consensus.16

Collective Identity

In this regard, it may be enlightening to think of our collective identity as a great river flowing through the territory of our history. This river, which has a source upstream, is fed by a diversity of tributaries along its route. Without ever losing its bed, it drains an entire river system which it integrates into its own course. It draws its power from this to advance and maintain itself in its channel. This plurality of inputs contributes to the quality of its waters and the strength of its current, which it is impossible to stop, let alone flow back. 

As this allegory evokes, it seems to us that the growing diversity of origins and the pluralism of social, cultural and religious horizons are constitutive, in principle and in fact, of the world’s identity. Better still, they nourish it and maintain it in its course which, in a way, moves out irreversibly to the sea.

However, interculturalism, when it is reduced to knowledge of the other and to the mutual contributions, is insufficient. Integration also requires a process of defining a common membership of the company, as well as the implementation of the conditions for a common real participation of all people in this collective life. Responses allowing to enrich the interculturalism model have been made, over the years, particularly through the notions of common public culture and citizenship.

Collectively, we have a responsibility to foster participation active of all in the citizen space. The effective realisation of the principle of equality requires a constant commitment of the state and social actors to genuine social democracy. This challenge therefore requires a special effort on the part of our public institutions and the political will to intervene in relation to what is likely to marginalize individuals and groups. This challenge also requires our society as a whole to remain vigilant in its fight against all forms of discrimination and stigmatization – in particular those that are related to these phenomena, which are referred to as “of heterophobia.”

Democracy And Multiculturalism17

For Pizzorno (1986: 368) 18, the relationship between democracy and multiculturalism derives from the fact that 

“there is a value that only democracy can to achieve: it is not freedom of political choice, but freedom to participate in collective identification processes; and the rights of the latter not to be subjected to any form of discrimination not be destroyed or determined solely by the power of the national state.” 

However, if it is true, as Raz (1994: 64) puts it 19, that : 

“multiculturalism is a problem today and for the foreseeable future – a problem for politics and the ethics of politics,” 

multiculturalism as a social and political phenomenon is not new.

The whole history of democratic construction is based on the struggle between groups with different identities, values and allegiances. But the interest of this problem is, it seems to me, the fact that contemporary theories of the democracy seem to be inadequate when it comes to laying down a normative basis for the sustainable (and legitimate) institutional practices, designed to regulate this new social constraint. The theoretical impasses, which are the debate between liberals and communitarians clearly expresses the uncertainty that prevails in this area (Gianni 1994).20 

The set of normative positions, ranging from the liberal thesis of “open borders” (Carens 1987)21, to the communitarian valorization of the virtue of patriotism (MacIntyre 1992) 22, is intimately linked to the issue of multiculturalism and citizenship. Although reaching very different conclusions, all of them aim to resolve the problem of establishing a common identity reference point in a culturally divided society.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter : @Ayurinu


  1. Cf. What is a Pluralistic Society and What are Its Pros and Cons ?When people with different origins, backgrounds, belief systems, and other differences come together to form society and live in it, then such society is known as pluralistic society. In this case, there is no force or coercion by anyone or on to discard their existing belief system and adapt to new one. Such a society is more or less based on the principal of ‘Live and Let Live’. Even the minorities are allowed to maintain their own, different identities in the matters that differentiate them.
  2.   Cf. Jean-Marie Donegani, Marc Sadoun, La démocratie imparfaite, Paris, Gallimard, 1994, p. 105-122.
  3. John Gray (born December 28, 1951) is an American relationship counselor, lecturer and author. In 1969, he began a nine-year association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi before beginning his career as an author and personal relationship counselor. His books have sold millions of copies. In 1992, Gray published his book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus which has sold more than 15 million copies and, according to a CNN report, it was the “highest ranked work of non-fiction” of the 1990s. The book became a “popular paradigm” for problems in relationships based on the different tendencies in each gender and led to infomercials, audiotapes and videotapes, a CD-ROM (the first from HarperReference), weekend seminars, theme vacations, a one-man Broadway show, an TV sitcom plus a movie contract with 20th Century Fox.[1][10][14] The book has been published in 40 languages and has earned Gray almost $18 million.Cf.
  4.  Cf. John Gray, Enlightment’s Wake, Londres et New York, Routledge, 1995.
  5.  Cf. William Galston, Liberal Pluralism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003 ; The Practice of Liberal Pluralism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  6.  Cf. John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
  7.  Thus, the translation of the term sunni would be “orthopraxis” rather than “orthodox”. See R. Aslan, No god but God. The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, London, Random House, 2005, p. 144.
  8. Jules Michelet (21 August 1798 – 9 February 1874) was a French historian. He was born in Paris to a family with Huguenot traditions. In his 1855 work, Histoire de France (History of France), Jules Michelet was the first historian to use and define the word Renaissance (‘Re-birth’ in French), as a period in Europe’s cultural history that represented a drastic break from the Middle Ages (which he loathed), creating a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world. Historian François Furet wrote that his History of the French Revolution (1847) remains “the cornerstone of all revolutionary historiography and is also a literary monument”. His aphoristic style emphasized his anti-clerical republicanism. Cf.
  9.  Cf.  J. Rawls, Théorie de la justice, trad. C. Audard, Paris, Seuil, 1987 [1971], p. 513 ; J. Rawls, Le libéralisme politique, trad. C. Audard, Paris, PUF, 1995, p. 198-201.
  10.  Cf. M.Chtatou. « L’anthropologie pour mieux comprendre la religion. » In Eurasia Review of February 16, 2020.
  11.  Cf. Declaration On Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae On The Right Of The Person And Of Communities To Social And Civil Freedom In Matters Religious Promulgated By His Holiness Pope Paul Vi On December 7, 1965.
  12. Cf. M. Chtatou. « L’anthropologie, la théologie, l’éducation et le dialogue interreligieux. » In Eurasia Review of February 2, 2020..
  13.  Cf. W. Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995 (La citoyenneté multiculturelle, trad. P. Savidan, Paris, La Découverte, 2000).
  14.  Cf. C. Taylor, Multiculturalism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 38 ; J. Habermas, Droit et démocratie, trad. R. Rochlitz et C. Bouchindhomme, Paris, Gallimard, 1996.
  15.  Cf. A. Margalit, La société décente, trad. F. Billard, Paris, La Découverte, 1996.
  16.  Cf.  J. Rawls, Théorie de la justice, trad. C. Audard, Paris, Seuil, 1987 [1971].
  17. Cf. Lappin, Shalom. 2007. “Multiculturalism and Democracy. “ In : Dissent, Volume 54, Number 3, Summer 2007 (whole No. 228), pp. 14-18. ”A debate rages in Europe today On the role of multicultural policies in stimulating religiously motivated extremism, Islamism in particular. In this discussion, multiculturalism is generally understood as government support for the cultural and religious institutions of minority communities. The groups at its center are immigrants or their first- and second-generation descendants. Sustaining the language and cultures of the Scots and the Welsh in Britain or the Catalans and the Basques in Spain is not at issue, even when tensions between these indigenous groups and the majority population of their countries seriously threaten national cohesion. The issue is immigrants from Muslim countries, although other immigrant groups are frequently drawn into the controversy. ”
  18.  Cf. Pizzorno, Alessandro (1986). “Sur la rationalité du choix démocratique ”, in Pierre BIRNBAUM et Jean LECA (éd.). Sur l’individualisme. Paris : Presses de la Fondation Française des Sciences Politiques. pp. 330-369. P. 368.
  19.  Cf. Raz, Joseph (1994). “Multiculturalism.” In : Dissent, winter : 67-79. P. 64.
  20.  Cf. Gianni, Matteo (1994). Les liens entre citoyenneté et démocratie sur la base des débats ”Libéraux-Communautariens”. Genève : Département de Science politique, coll. Etudes et Recherches 26.
  21.  Cf. Carens, Joseph (1987). “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders.” In : Review of Politics 49(3): 251-273. 

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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