Radboud University: Young religious people on the separation of church and state

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Is our multicultural society ready for a definitive separation of church and state? Young Christians, Muslims, and Humanists think not. If it was up to them, the state would retain its ties with religion, but treat all forms of belief equally. This is the conclusion of religious studies expert Jeroen Jans, who will defend his PhD thesis on 12 September at Radboud University.

“The relationship between church and state is clearly going through a transition phase,” says religious studies expert Jeroen Jans, who will defend his PhD thesis at Radboud University on 12 September. “In Luxemburg and the Netherlands, the ties have already largely been severed, and a growing number of Belgian politicians call into question the financing of religious services by the state, arguing that doing so is no longer in line with today’s secular society.”

Equal treatment
What place should religious and other beliefs occupy in society? Jans asked this question of more than 650 committed young Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Humanists in the Netherlands and Flanders. “These are the people whom we can expect to play an important role in religious organisations and philosophical movements in the years to come, so their views offer an indication of what future discussions about the church and the state might look like.”

The researcher sent out questionnaires and held interviews. He also spoke to young Humanists, as representatives of a non-religious worldview. “Mind you, Humanism is not necessarily akin to atheism, and the non-religious in a given society are not necessarily Humanists,” he emphasises. “Some young Humanists also wonder at times whether there is more to life than what we know.”

In the questionnaires, young people were presented with four models of state, varying from a strict split between church and state to a fully theocratic or atheistic state promoting a single belief form. The young people were most in favour of a state model based on egalitarianism, as the researcher observed. “They advocate for a state that grants equal treatment to all religions and life philosophies, and they find it important to safeguard diversity. For example, a number of respondents reported viewing the wearing of religious symbols as a matter of personal choice, but they wouldn’t accept an entire population being forced into such practices, or one group being allowed to do it, and another not.”

Modern believers
Young Christians and Muslims were slightly more likely than young Humanists to allow the state to have preferences. Young Humanists, on the other hand, were more in favour of a strict separation between church and state. Jans: “Some Christians believe that it should be possible to hang crosses in government buildings, since, historically, Christianity has played such an important role here. Young Protestants are most actively engaged with their faith. Their voting preferences are also slightly more likely to be in line with their religious beliefs.”

Within all groups, there was a small minority that favoured the state promoting a specific religion or atheism, as the PhD candidate discovered. “Among this group you find the people who make the strongest statements, for example that the state should forbid euthanasia, or that newcomers should just adjust to the dominant religion. These are often the statements that make it into the media, but there is a silent majority that is less visible in public debates.”

According to the researcher, young religious people are often dismissed as unworldly or as having ideas that are incompatible with modern values. “But this study reveals them to be pluralistic in their thinking, and in favour of great individual freedom, with a central place for dialogue.”

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