Visitors' programme "United in Diversity – Religion and Tolerance in Germany“ | July, 2015

Visiting the Alevist Community at Cologne © ifa
Editorial office of the Weekly journal "Die Zeit", Berlin © ifa
Bode-Museum Berlin © ifa

Strong Ties in the Context Tolerance and Freedom

Report by Dr. Odila Triebel

Ernst Wolfgang Böckenförde, the former constitutional law expert, once coined a much-quoted paradox: "the liberal secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself". Social commitment requires strong convictions, but the state does not supply them. That is why the words of the constitutional law expert continue in a way which is quoted less frequently: "this is the great adventure it has undertaken for freedom's sake." (Böckenförde 1967)

The schism inherent in legal theory is kept in a delicate balance in the way the relationship between religion and state is shaped in Germany, thereby ensuring in particular an acceptance of strong convictions to tolerate other strong convictions. At the same time this system prevents excessive proximity of religion and politics, previously the phenomenon known as civil religion. How do other countries view this system? Can one learn from it? Would it prove viable even under the different conditions prevailing in an immigrant society?

As part of a delegation trip arranged by ifa for the Auswärtiges Amt (German Foreign Office) on the subject of "Unity in Diversity – Religion and Tolerance in Germany" leading experts from religious communities, the administration, NGOs and media representatives from twelve countries (Belarus, China, Georgia, India, Iran, Kosovo, Lithuania, Malaysia, Nigeria, Romania, Poland, Vietnam) held a dialogue with German experts.

The Balance between Religion and the Secular State
Religious freedom in Germany is an individual basic right, although exercised collectively, laid down i.a. in Articles IV (1) and (2) , as well as Article VII (2) and (3) of the Basic Law. It also grants people the freedom to decline  having a religious affiliation. Religious freedom is a negative right, protecting citizens against the state while also obliging the state to guarantee the free exercise of religion. Germany has no obligation to register religious adherence; belonging to a religious community is subject only to civil law just like association law.

The system for training priests in Germany (as in other mainly protestant European countries) is much less well-known internationally. Religious communities in Germany are free as far as the content and exercise of their faith is concerned, but the state does take an interest in how clergy are trained. How is this done without controlling the teaching content concerned?

Every member of the clergy and everyone who teaches religion at a German school must have university training in his or her religion before doing an internship provided by the relevant religious community. In essence this how the state guarantees that educational content which is part of an enlightened modernity: a historical/genealogical understanding of the relevant faith, a historical-critical approach to the reading of the respective sacred texts, and a basically pluralist understanding of religion. This is how the state provides an important framework for the prevention of fundamentalism: Right now there is no fundamentalist threat arising out of religious communities in Germany.

Unlike the practice in many other countries, religious education is compulsory at schools; “ethics classes”, i.e. religious instruction not affiliated to a particular faith are an alternative. At the same time, it is possible to attend religious classes in other denominations, just as this choice is not linked to personal religious affiliation.

Religious Diversity in Germany
Over 200 different religious communities have now become established in Germany. The country’s Muslim community is the second largest in Europe. Major concerns for Muslim organisations include acceptance and the prevention of fundamentalism. So far, paying for imams is still a problem for many communities which are too small to be funded independently. The establishment of Muslim university faculties a few years ago constituted an important step reflecting the development of basic acceptance, despite occasional fears of liberalisation bouts.

Judaism has been present in Berlin since 1295. The Central Council  describes the current situation as paradoxical: growing antisemitism exists in tandem with growing Jewish life in Germany. While the debate in 1945 centred on whether there could – or should – again be any continuation of Jewish life in Germany, the 15,000 survivors who stayed in the country after 1945 are now regarded as the pioneers of Jewish life in there. As of now, 2015, the European Maccabi Games are being hosted in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

The Alawites have been recognised as a religious community in Germany since 2007, but their association has already been in existence for 26 years. Recognition requires compliance with formal, internal, organisational criteria, such as the rights of members to join or leave, a clear hierarchical structure and independent religious teachings. Although twenty percent of Turks say are of the Alawite faith, although the religious denomination is not recognised there. The framework for recognised religious communities, as it exists in Germany, France and Sweden, provides opportunities for the development of teaching materials and for research into the Alawite faith, for example to begin the first ever comprehensive collection of their wide-ranging and diverse traditional songs.

Will the state be able to provide a legal framework for the existing diversity, using the tools currently available? Although the majority of non-Christian religious communities is on the rise, Christian churches will soon find themselves unable to maintain the territorial principle, under which one local priest should be responsible for every given territory of a certain size. In their self-perception, Christian churches still consider themselves as having an important social function, which also includes political approaches towards the socially weaker members of society. They also wish to keep a place for religion in politics. So far, they are far and away the largest religious communities. And yet the member base is steadily decreasing. The future of the churches will depend on the commitment of the Christians themselves, whether they can keep their spirituality alive and whether they can integrate their traditions into their everyday lives.

Inter-faith Dialogue in Germany
Inter-faith dialogue in Germany is well established and flourishing. The delegates on the trip mentioned earlier were impressed by the "House of One" initiative, which is designed to create a house of prayer in Berlin for the three major monotheistic religions, where people can engage in joint dialogue on matters of discussion, prayer and celebration, without losing their separate character. However, many members of the delegation felt Germany should not simply invest in its own society, but assume responsibility – and show commitment – for international inter-faith dialogue on a much larger scale.

Despite efforts to increase support for inter-faith dialogue in Germany, there is unfortunately a growing trend for anti-Semitic views, while wide-spread anti-Muslim prejudice continues unabated – despite numerous projects designed to promote dialogue and prevention among young people, such as the programme reissued by the Federal Ministry of Family, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, offering 40,5 million for combating right-wing extremism and hatred.

Europe’s Special Path: Secularisation
A state should respect the fact that for believers, both identity and the meaning of life depend on practising their faith. Equally, there needs to be a constant reappraisal of what contemporary type of impact religion has on society – in particular because a welfare state, a state based on the rule of law, is obliged to meet many demands considered essential for religious justice. But any answers cannot simply be translated to the international stage. If there are no states with a European levels of development in welfare and the rule of law, the social cohesion engendered by religion will have to be viewed in a nuanced way, taking the respective context into account.

From a global perspective Europe, which sees itself as secular, can still be described as faith-based, at least in so far as cultural bonding primarily occurs more on the basis of conviction (including a belief in law)  than on the basis of tradition and pragmatism. Speaking skills and a differentiated knowledge on what aspects are derived from the impact of monotheistic text-based religions, are helpful and may even be necessary for intercultural communication.

No society which considers itself as pluralist should refrain from discussing fundamentalist tendencies and hate speech in the context of religion, simply for the sake of convenience or out of concern for political correctness. But there has to be critical research into the root causes of extremism and terrorism, coupled with careful observation of their broad diversity and their differences in different societies.

Courage to Paradoxes
Might freedom require a paradox, both generally, and necessarily going beyond the Beckernförde paradox? With a permanent separation of form and content at its core? Might the Beckernförde paradox therefore describe a safety net for democracy? Some paradoxes have to be defended as inherent to the system, even if on the face of it they are sometimes perceived as hypocrisy or as contradictions.

Teachers argue the need for religious instruction on the basis that children have to be promised the world in primary education – but only a stable legal framework guarantees they will be able to deal with the inevitable disappointments of later life.

Some examples: the original motto of the weekly newspaper "DIE ZEIT" when launching the editorial department "Faith and Doubt" was a quote from English writer Julian Barnes "I do not believe in God – but I miss him."

The cabaret artists of the "Pantheon Theater" visited on the delegation trip put it this way: yes, we do want to change something – but it’s just art. Laughing at horrible things creates distance, which provides the ability to act, thou art itself is not instrumentally active.

More and more people are leaving the major Christian churches in Germany – while the number of theology students is increasing. Viewing one’s own cultural traditions from another person’s perspective provides cultural riches. But there is an obvious latent effect from such an underlying cultural structure: a need to recognise argumentation logic outside law and political science in order to avoid falling into intellectually tautological traps.

Open-ended Dialogue
How about the future? Both the diversity of an immigration society and the diversity emerging from the global cultural exchange are increasing. One cannot assume the importance of religion in forging social cohesion is likely to decrease globally. Such facts can only be met with an essentially peace-promoting understanding of religion, which the religions themselves should use as a benchmark. Everything else can be grasped through sociological definitions, such as group-focused enmity.

Dialogue can only be preserved through more dialogue – the risk of freedom which a state such as Germany shoulders can only be kept alive by a strong civil society. Seen from a global point of view, Europe has chosen to follow a special path. In the interests of communication and cooperation, Europeans need to improve their knowledge and understanding of all religious communities. For itself, though, this special path has proved to be both fruitful and conducive to safeguarding peace.

Recommendations for International German Communications and Actions:

  • provide more information about the German constitutional model: the creation of the state by restricting the secular power of the churches – a lesson learned from the wars of religion; the aspect of positive neutrality (which can facilitate dialogue with societies deeply imbued with religion), the model of academic training for the clergy
  • continue to strongly emphasise that both internal and external state influence on religious communities diametrically contradicts this model
  • promote an international platform for an enlightened Islam
  • analyse and formulate with extreme accuracy where violence in religious contexts is concerned; use the definition framework of group-focused enmity in case religiously exclusive identities are politicised
  • combat extremism in joint solidarity with the faithful
  • expand cultural intelligence and learn more about the self-perception and legal systems of religious communities
  • set up more debate within the media on how religion is portrayed in the context of violence