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What Place Is There for Religion in a Democracy?

Autor: The_Japan_News

By Takenori Inoki / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun

11:00 JST, May 10, 2024

Young Japanese people’s interest in thinking and religion is said to have been declining in recent years.

One reason could be the criminal offenses committed by certain religious organizations that have threatened the peace of society. Young people have consequently become aware of the danger described by 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who cited the maxim: “the corruption of the best of things produces the worst.”

Moreover, hectic modern life generally tends to give people no choice but to prioritize the pursuit of convenience resulting from technological progress and economic affluence. People have no time to think about death and the deceased.

Looking at comparable trends overseas regarding people’s interest in religion, it becomes clear many industrialized countries have something in common — a change in their populations’ interest in traditional religions. One such example may be “religious disaffiliation,” a phenomenon that U.S. and European news media report as increasingly conspicuous among Christians.

Statistics exist about the followers of religions and denominations. How should individuals’ religious affiliation be verified? It is not an easy process. Religious organizations’ self-reports are weak evidence. In one country, for example, the aggregate of people listed by various denominations as their believers even sometimes surpasses the nation’s actual population.

Germany, Austria, Switzerland and some other countries provide reliable statistics based on a so-called church tax — also known as a religious tax — that is traditionally levied on registered members of officially recognized religious communities.

Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees freedom of religion, and freedom of religious activity and religious association, for individuals and groups. The constitution prohibits the establishment of a state church, and this is believed to guarantee the separation of church and state.

In Germany, recognized religious communities such as the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church and the Jewish religious community are legally empowered by the Lander (provinces) to impose a church tax on their members. This tax scheme is a stable source of revenue for clergies’ salaries and religious institutions’ activities.

Departure from churches

People in Germany need to specify a religious affiliation when they register their addresses with a civil registration office. The tax office collects tax from all registered church members’ monthly incomes on behalf of their religious community. When a registered member decides to leave a church, they need to notify the relevant district court and/or the civil registration office of the decision.

According to news reports, people in Germany have become increasingly discontent with the church tax. An increasing number of people are said to be leaving churches due to a series of scandals and the burden of the church tax — which amounts to slightly less than 9% of income tax.

For example, the German Bishops’ Conference said an all-time high of more than half a million people left the Catholic Church in Germany in 2022. The Protestant Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland) also has seen a decrease in its members.

So, what does “religious disaffiliation” mean for contemporary political and social dynamics? In a liberal democratic society, every person is perceived as an individual who is equal to all other people, free and independent. This inevitably inclines people toward individualism and pursuing their own economic welfare, weakening social ties that would otherwise help people connect to one another.

At the end of the day, people are more likely to lose interest in public affairs and focus particularly on things that could have a direct effect on their economic circumstances.

French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said democracy would not only weaken the public spirit essential for social order, but also shorten the span of time spent thinking about things. In other words, democracy would tend to produce self-centered people who would prioritize things that were vital “for me now.”

To avert this tendency, he argued, there should be a set of methods in place for cultivating public spirit, such as participation in governance and administration of local communities, voluntary associations of people willing to share interests and concerns and a jury system in which people would participate in determining justice.

Role of religion

Tocqueville also focused on the role of religion. To ensure the healthy functioning of democracy, it would be necessary to expand people’s minds, which tended to focus on things that were vital “for me now,” to think of “the future and other people.” He thus emphasized the power of religion to liberate humans from great selfishness.

But this does not necessarily mean that Tocqueville had in mind any particular organized religion or denomination. He believed religion should be a philosophy that would offer a simple answer to the question of “death and immortality” — an answer human souls seek to know.

Tocqueville thought that expanding thoughts to the future and other people could act like a counterweight, preventing democracy from easily succumbing to mass violence. Tocqueville did not argue that church and state must be separated to prevent a religious group from dominating politics. Rather, he believed people should worry about a religious group becoming interested in politics to the extent that the inherent power of religion would decline.

Religion is only supposed to assert a set of ideals — believers then feel empowered to voluntarily pursue a better life and a better society. This means that religious ideals themselves have no power to directly compel us to engage in specific political and social activities in the real world.

As we look anew at the relationship between religion and the state, the principle of separation does not seem easy to uphold. We witnessed an example of this difficulty after Pope Francis gave an interview to an Italian-language Swiss broadcaster in February this year. The pope urged Ukraine to have “the courage of the white flag” and negotiate an end to the war with Russia. Ukraine’s ambassador to the Vatican, Andrii Yurash rejected this call, saying, “During World War II, was anyone serious about peace talks with Hitler?”

Ukraine’s reaction to the pope’s remarks illustrates how difficult the choice between religious ideals and the harsh reality of politics can be. Ukraine’s criticism indicates that even if church and state remain separate, religion cannot really serve as a mediator for peace when strife among nations occurs.

Political and religious groups fought for hegemony throughout much of history. In the modern age, the economic society came into being, in which people were preoccupied with their economic lives. In the preceding age, people’s activities were motivated by various factors, including customs, traditions, public obligations, personal promises, religious precepts and political allegiances.

According to Alfred Marshall, whose students included John Maynard Keynes: “Here and there the ardor of the military or the artistic spirit has been for a while predominant, but religious and economic influences have nowhere been displaced from the front rank even for a time.”


Takenori Inoki

Inoki is a professor emeritus at Osaka University, where he also served as dean of the economics department. He was a specially appointed professor at Aoyama Gakuin University from 2012 to 2016. Prior to that, he served as director general of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies from 2008 to 2012.


The original Japanese article appeared in the May 5 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.

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