In: Beyond Binaries
Joshua Ralston
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Klaus von Stosch
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In 1997, the city of Edinburgh erected a statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile outside the High Court. As is well known, Hume was one of the most important philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, a naturalist, empiricist, skeptic of revealed religion and a staunch critic of superstition.1 It is an irony, then, that Hume’s statue has become a site of ritual pilgrimage and superstition for Scots and visitors alike. As the cover photo of our book shows, the toe of Hume’s statue is now worn golden from countless philosophy students rubbing it for good luck before exams, lawyers and criminals touching it before entering the court, and the tourists reaching out to touch it as the pass by on their walk from Edinburgh’s castle to Holyrood palace. One of the great champions of the Enlightenment, whose influence was so profound that even Immanuel Kant said reading Hume awoke him his own dogmatic slumber, has now become a contemporary site of ritual. Even in the midst of Enlightenment philosophy, the legacy of ritual and religion remain in Europe.

This complex and complicated legacy of Europe is further illustrated by the church that features in the backdrop of the cover photo of the book. It is St Giles Cathedral, which is both a parish church for the Church of Scotland and functions as the High Kirk of Edinburgh. The church’s own role both in the history of Scotland and in present day politics and society betrays the ways that church and state remain entangled. Like many European churches or cathedrals in capital cities, it includes memorials and tombs of national and regional political and social significance. The church, like Scotland, has at various times been Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Presbyterian again depending on the politics and power of kings and queens. And yet this complex history of religion and politics meeting is not limited to history. For instance, when Queen Elizabeth II died in Balmoral Castle in 2022, her body travelled to St Giles for a Christian service and to lie at rest so that the Scottish public could honour her. Moreover, the church still hosts many public gatherings and civic occasions. The most relevant for our book is the kirking of the Scottish parliament. This is ancient tradition of the Scottish parliament being approved by the Church of Scotland was both reinstated and amended in 1999 when Scotland received devolved power from the United Kingdom. The new service that is held approximately every four years still prominently features the Church of Scotland and its liturgy and prayers. However, the new ceremony has expanded to become inter-religious including first Jews and Muslims and now representatives of both religious and non-religious communities from across Scotland. In Scotland, which has one of the lowest percentage of religious adherents in Europe, the secular and democratic parliament is blessed by an inter-religious ceremony hosted by a historic Christian church. The statue of David Hume and St Giles Cathedral capture in one vignette something of the complexity of religion, history, secularisms, and diversity in Europe. To understand these realities well, we cannot rely on old tropes of secularism versus religion, but need to move beyond binaries to analyze the ways that religion is present within the secular and the secular within the religious.

Europe is marked by both increasing secularity and growing religious diversity. On the one hand, church attendance and belief in God has continually declined in Western Europe over the last decades.2 On the other hand, there has been a resurgence of religious identity in public spaces both in appeals to the Judeo-Christian values of Europe and in ongoing legal and political arguments about Islam. These two realities, apparent in both social-scientific data and political analysis, have created new questions about religious diversity in Europe. This also presents profound challenges about the impact of religion on the legacies of political liberalism, individual freedom, the rule of law, and cultural unity in diversity. At its heart, Europe is in the midst of a debate about its history, present, and future identity.

The question of Europe’s future and the relationship between religion and politics includes a number of assumptions about secularization, pluralism, Christianity, Judaism, and other religions, particularly Islam. In terms of secularism, the common theory of increasing secularization supposes that religion and religious belonging will either slowly decline or privatize as societies and economies ‘evolve’.3 The secularism theory has not proven accurate, with religious communities and discourse remain an increasing part of European politics in the 21st century. Religious attendance and belief in God may be on the decline, but public religion has not faded. This has led scholars of the public square such as Jürgen Habermas, to revise their political and social theories in order to account for the resurgence of public religion.4 While the secularization thesis has been critiqued in academic scholarship5, it remains prevalent in political and popular rhetoric. So while academics may talk about the post-secular age, the dominant political and media discourse still assume that Europe is a largely secular continent.

This is evident in the binaries that shape many perspectives on religion. Religion and the secular are depicted as inherently opposed to one another, with religions often considered to be only relevant to private affairs and personal beliefs. In contrast, the public sphere is understood as a secular and rational place where religious influence must be curtailed. In this binary perspective, Islam is viewed as misunderstanding the nature of religion and the secular because it seeks to enter the public space and does not properly accept the separation of religion and state. Muslim displays of religion or religiosity interrupt the secular settlement. By contrast, Europe is associated with foundational places of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem due to the influence of Roman law, Greek philosophy and the Biblical heritage all shaping modern Europe.6 The Christian heritage of Europe is, as Rogers Brubaker and Nilfur Göle have argued, tied up with the political secularism of Europe.7 This leaves other religious traditions, especially Islam and Muslims, as outside the dominant vision of Europe. Europe is presumed to be both secular and Judeo-Christian. These narratives about Europe fail to understand the important role of Muslims in Spain or the Balkans, and also neglect the longstanding intolerance that Christians showed to Jews on the continent.8

In our times, Europe faces a tremendous number of political, social and economic challenges. The biggest challenge is arguably the future of the ideal of a democratic Europe that is able to unite different cultures, worldviews, economies, political concepts, and religions. In the face of these challenges, European politicians and society often talk as if it already knows how to address the problem of religious difference – especially after the Wars of Religion in the 17th Century and the Shoah of the 20th Century. The dominant political approach to the problem of religious difference consisted of a combination of privatization of religious practice and belief, appeals to individual liberty, the promotion of religious tolerance, and cultural assimilation. Religion and theology are rarely understood as a useful tool to solve these contemporary problems. On the contrary, religion is often seen as part of the problem. From this point of view, religion should be restricted to the private sphere without intervening in the socio-political affairs that trouble Europe. But many religious believers do not agree with a reduction of religion to the private sphere and they want to share both: something of their fruits from religion with society and also want to learn from the secular environment to help improve their religious understanding and social engagement. Religious communities are not only problems to be managed, but also active contributors to social and political goods.

Today, in our so-called post-secular age, international, national, and local political policy makers have also been investing more in an active diversity policy to tackle the problem of growing intolerance and religious diversity. Active tolerance can take on various forms from setting up permanent consultative bodies in which the representatives of the different religions can be united such as the European Council of Religious Leaders, to opening multireligious centers of encounter like the House of One in Berlin or the Haus der Religionen in Bern, or from involving religious communities in public ritual ceremonies and advocating for inter-religious education in schools. These activities show us how the European secular and political project is more complex. Throughout European nations, and in a variety of modes and social arrangements, politics includes and engages with religious communities and actors. This may include things like models of taxation that fund religious education and communities or in the active ways that religious communities partner with local governments to provide aid to migrants or the homeless. In these examples, the public powers and their representatives are trying to promote and make visible a ‘good understanding’ between the religions and the public sphere. This is a welcome move beyond appeals only to religion needing to privatize or religious communities being inherently problematic when engaging with politics or civil society.

While there is much to commend in these movements, this edited volume seeks to go further by exploring how comparative theology, critical religion, and historical studies might move beyond the binaries that too often shape European debates on religion and politics. In so doing, the volume nuances understandings of religious diversity in Europe. The authors aim to complicate and challenge these divisions between religion – secular, private – public, and Judeo-Christianity – Islam. Through a series of case studies and theological arguments, we show that these binaries do not provide an adequate treatment of religions in Europe, either in the past or the present, nor do appeals to these binaries provide constructive socio-political or theological solutions to the challenges of religious and cultural diversity. More complex answers to the relationship of religions and the secular in Europe have to be given that engage with the complex history, theologies, and politics that have shaped the nature of religious diversity and the secular heritage of Europe. In advocating for this approach, the volume seeks a middle way between those who advance a critical theory of religion and the state on the one hand and those who uphold an idealised vision of liberal political neutrality. We seek neither a whole sale critique of political liberalisms such as those found in critical religion scholars, nor do argue for an idealised account of political liberalism that ignores the various ways that the state and liberal politics acts to enforce injustice and marginalisation. Following Cecile Laborde in her recent work, Liberalism’s Religion, the volume seeks to encourage not only a dialogue between religious communities or between religion and politics, but also a more productive engagement between critics and champions of political liberalism in Europe.9 We want to develop those answers by engaging complexities in history and in the contemporary situation, and help religions and the secular to engage in a more fruitful mutual relationship and exchange. The volume rethinks the common classification of religious and secular, and strengthen both the potentials of the monotheistic religions to answer socio-political questions and the enrichment the secular contributes to the self-understanding of religions in our modern society. The wager of the edited volume is that a historical informed comparative theology and ethics offers one way to engage with religious diversity in Europe beyond the aforementioned binaries.

Section and Chapter Outlines10

The first section of the volume begins to nuance understandings of religion and politics in Europe by offering three concrete case studies drawn from political theology, history, and bio-medical ethics. By starting with case studies, we seek to illustrate how existing theoretical frameworks for understanding religious diversity and politics in Europe through either privatisation or toleration are insufficient for interpreting the complex ways that Judaism, Christianity, Islam and secularism actually interact both historically and in the current situation. Attention to lived political and religious practice troubles too neat boundaries or definition of theory.

Appeals to Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage as being integral to the formation of liberal political traditions have increasingly been used to marginalise Muslims and others. Ulrich Schmiedel and Hannah Strømmen, for instance, have shown how the European far right claims Christianity and the Judeo-Christian heritage of Europe to advance their nationalist politics and demonize Muslims.11 The two opening chapters by Joshua Ralston and Johannes Süßmann enter into the fraught debates over both the history and the current discourse around Europe as a Judeo-Christian and secular country.

Ralston’s chapter uses the method of political theology to interrogate how the borders of a (Christian) Europe are constructed both in rhetoric and practice. With a specific focus on the migration crisis of 2015–2018 and the political debates in Europe about ethical and political responsibility for Syrian, Afghan, and other refugees, Ralston shows how migration and border regulation has exposed a longstanding contradiction around religion and Muslims in European liberal political thought. Rather than simply viewing migration debates in Europe as an argument between nationalists and cosmopolitans, Ralston argues that both liberalism and right wing nationalism have both found ways to other Muslims from belonging in Europe. Instead of remaining in these dichotomies, the chapter proposes a comparative political theology of Europe that draws from the best of the liberal tradition and Judeo-Christian heritage of Europe but also expands it to include the practices, critiques, and political theologies of Muslims both in Europe and beyond.

Süßmann’s chapter questions the existing binaries that shape the perspective of European societies through a historical examination of the formation of the idea of a “European Christian civilisation.” Rather than emerging as a trope to marginalise dissenting religious traditions or pit Europeans over and against Muslims, Süßmann shows how the origins of explicit appeals to European Christian civilisation and a Judeo-Christian heritage began in the early 19th century as a means to unite disparate linguistic, religious, and national communities. While language and discussions of European Christendom preceded this romantic appeal to European Civilisation, the chapter avers that origins of European and Judeo-Christian Civilisation were originally inclusive and not exclusive.

The final case study in the opening section, written by Karsten Lehmkühler, uses the field of comparative theology to study the field of bio-ethics and medical debates. Lehmkühler persuasively illustrates how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers and traditions are already involved, both in hospitals and the public sphere, in contributing to debates across Europe on the ethical issues about both the beginning and end of life. The majority of the chapter uses a specific focused study of debates about the beginning of life, or ensoulment of the embryo or person, to illustrate the complex ways that Jews, Christians, Muslims, and secular ethicists are debating key issues of medical ethics in Europe today. The chapter shows the impact religions (in their diversity) already have in the secular sphere and questions the presumed idea that religions should always be restricted to the private sector.

The second section of the book turns from concrete case studies of religion and politics in Europe to a scriptural, historical, and theological analysis of idolatry in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. The category of idolatry and iconoclasm has received renewed attention in Europe, especially in relationship to the destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan by the Taliban and the attacks on Palmyra by ISIS in Syria. With these attacks in mind, the religious critique of idolatry in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is perceived to always lead to intolerance and a lack of inter-religious respect. The two case studies in this section nuance this understanding.

First, Klaus von Stosch, presents some of the recent interventions against the monotheistic critique of idolatry by scholars like Jan Assmann. He explains how liberal theology tries to respond to this form of critique by relativizing and historicizing the iconoclastic tradition within the Abrahamic religions. Postliberal theology, political and liberation theology however insist on the legacy of the critique of idols and try to translate it in the perspective of marginalized people today. It shows how the polytheistic discourse of unity has to be criticized from the perspective of the marginalized as an exclusionary discourse of domination by those in power. Von Stosch suggests a kind of middle way between liberal and postliberal approaches and highlights the ambiguity of the critique of idolatry. In this perspective, theology does not have the task of simply unmasking and dethroning the idols of our time, but of critically accompanying the discourses about them and enriching them with ever greater complexity.

Second, Daniel Weiss offers a nuanced and fascinating study of the Jewish tradition’s approach to the uniqueness of God, critique of idols, and its meaning for living in a pluralist society. By using the Mishnah, a fundamental text of rabbinic Judaism, as a hermeneutical lens to read the Biblical critique of idolatry, Weiss argues that the Jewish traditions ardent monotheism and commitment to living in fidelity to the LORD alone includes a rich vision of socio-political critique and engagement. Rather than calling for either separatism from the surrounding non-Jewish communities or acquiescence to problematic socio-political norms, Weiss shows how the Rabbinic tradition offered a nuance vision of both shared participation with neighbours and critiques of dehumanising activities. As he writes in his introduction, “far from merely posing a hindrance to notions of pluralism and tolerance, we will discover that the Mishnah’s approach to idolatry can provide productive fresh directions for contemporary thinking about social multiplicity and its relation to religious-monotheistic commitment.” Taken together both von Stosch and Weiss argue for the possibility of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions to leverage their rich and contested views of idolatry to contribute to a political theology of European solidarity in difference.

In the final section of the book, we turn to questions of the future of tolerance and religious diversity in Europe. This builds upon and expands the case studies and theological analysis to consider concrete practices and possibilities for moving beyond binaries.

In the first contribution, Elisa Klapheck emphasizes the affirmative power of Talmudic concepts for a plural and democratic society. By analyzing five key-concepts of Talmudic theology (Tikkun Olam; Zelem Elohim; Pikuach Nefesch, Noachian Laws; Dina de Malchuta Dina), Klapheck achieves not only to highlight the value of the critical tension between God and the Jewish believer, but also to show a path to an affirmative perception of diversity and multireligious concepts of society in contemporary Jewish Theology. Ending with the proposal of a “theology of secular society”, Klapheck interprets the secular world as also being in a conflictual relation towards God. Therefor it seems possible to ascribe religious value to secular society and it seems to be possible for religion to learn from it.

Roland Stolte presents in the second article of this section the multireligious project ‘The House of One’, a prayer house for all three monotheistic religions in Berlin. Before beginning his theological tour through the architectural plans of the project, he emphasizes the difficultness and fragility of the idea of ‘Religious Oneness’, proposing a new form of dialogue which values religious diversity as much as the individual religious claim of truth. The architecture of the building which is currently under construction reflects the richness of religious tradition. The vertical axis represents the temporal dimension of religious tradition, while the horizontal axis shows the vitality and openness of current monotheistic traditions towards each other. In the central part of the building one may find the Domed Central Hall which Stolte calls the ‘fourth space’. Its main purpose is to be a space in between, where religions can practice the dialogue with each other and towards society.

The last chapter analyses a significant paradigm shift within European religious and educational policy from a mere secular view of religion to a broader concept of plurality and multi-religious tolerance. Marianne Moyaert reveals the critical potential of dialogical education and the idea of active tolerance within a multireligious society, which in part turns against the master narratives of the liberal tradition. She highlights remaining socio-political and cultural inequalities in the discourse of religions by describing the phenomenon of cultural Christianism and thus problematizes the liberal idea of a neutral discursive context. Moreover, the idea of neutral plurality turns against liberalism itself, which evaluates religious behaviour on basis of certain criteria. By doing so the liberal interpretation of religions creates a highly normative environment for multireligious dialogue and learning. The central insight here is that contexts of the multireligious dialogue are not neutral but that themselves need to be a subject of the socio-political discourse.

Taken together the chapters in this volume chart out new directions in the study of religious diversity in Europe and beyond. More specifically, the book argues that the methods and approaches of comparative theology are appropriate, not only for the study of doctrines or texts, but also of lived religion, public theology, and ethics. This commitment to focusing on diversity and particularity, itself a hallmark of the method of comparative theology, is part of the reasons that the work has chosen to focus on specific case studies, histories, and theological challenges. Rather than focusing on all of Europe or speaking of religion or secularism as single essential realities, the work aims to dive deeper into how religious diversity, societies, and politics are enacted and approached in concrete ways. The debates about immigration or medical ethics will not be the same in Germany as they are in France or Hungary or Italy, but there may be resonance and things to learn from focusing more deeply and clearly on specific religious texts or ethical challenges than if we evaluated religion and politics in a more general way. The challenges facing Europe, not to mention the world after the Covid pandemic and with the imminent energy crisis, continuing wars, and the march of global climate change, demand solidarity and engagement across religious and non-religious boundaries. It is exactly this type of academic analysis and inter-religious engagement that comparative theology and the work of this edited volume seeks to nurture and grow.

The contents of this edited volume were first presented at a workshop on comparative theology and religious diversity in Europe held in Cologne, Germany. The co-editors are grateful of the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, and Catholic-Theological Faculty of Bonn for their commitment to their support of the project. In addition, the project would not have been advanced without the assistance of Dr Lucy Schouten, Daniel Kanthak, and Julia Lülswilken. We thank Leonhard Banowski for technical assistance with the manuscript.


See for instance, cf. Hume 1957.


See for instance, the Pew Report 2018.


The secularization theory and its decline has produced numerous articles and books from a range of subjects including sociology, political theory, religious studies, and more. While somewhat dated, but helpful summary of the history of the debate from the 1960s to the late 1990s, see Swatos Jr & Christiano 1999.


See for instance, the changes in Habermas’s position from his 1962 work, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft to his 1996 writings on Die Einbeziehung des Anderen: Studien zur politischen Theorie for the ways that one of the most prominent political philosophers in German and English nuanced his views on the public sphere in light of transformations around secularity and religion. Cf. also Habermas 2005; Habermas 2009.


Cf. Taylor 2018; Joas 2019.


Cf. Ladeur 2011, 20.


Brubaker 2017, and Göle 2015.


For an important new study on how Muslim identity and practice were central to the emergence of law in southeastern Europe in the 19th and 20th century, see Greble 2021.


Laborde 2017. In this book Prof Laborde defends a modified view of political liberalism that allows for engagement with religious diversity and religious exemptions over and against critiques of liberalism that argue European liberalism is grounded on certain protestant enlightenment conceptions of religion that fail to account for its ritual and public nature. She proposes to “disaggregate” religion so that the liberal state need not be understood as advocating for a general neutrality but only a restricted neutrality.


The work includes chapters written in both German and English, which was done intentionally to highlight the importance of linguistic diversity within the academia and European history. While translating all the chapters into one or the other language may have eased reading for some, it would have limited the accessibility for others. By including abstracts in the other language and through this summary outline, we hope that those competent in only one language will have access to understand the broad scope of the project.


Strømmen & Schmiedel 2020.

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