Lecture of Marco Rizzi, on religion and radicalization

Marco Rizzi (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore - Milano)



Some reflections about religion, radicalization and secularization

 I have firstly exposed the reflections I am now presenting, in a paper appeared in the Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society, an open access journal promoted by the Department of philosophy of the University of Wien. [Religione e politica: qualche riflessione sul concetto e sul problema della secolarizzazione e della razionalità nel mondo contemporaneo, in «Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society – J-RaT», I (September 2015), pgs 46-56. (ISSN 2364-2807)]. Later, I have discussed them with other colleagues within the framework of a larger multidisciplinary research project on “the crisis of European culture and the future of the humanistic tradition”. Now, I am refining them into a small book aimed at a larger diffusion, which will be published in short by Il mulino editore under the title “The weak secularization”. Here, I summarize the main assumptions that led my research, in the form of general statements regarding the theme of this session. Of course, they would need an historical analysis wider than that here possible. I hope, however, that, also in this synthetic form, they can help us understand the actual problems posed by the return of religions in the public sphere, and especially their most dramatic implications.


  1. The present situation has made clear that the “classical” – so to say – paradigm of secularization has failed in its prognosis. According to it, the process of modernization would parallel the expulsion of the “religion” from the public sphere and its reduction to the private dimension of individual life (in the best case; otherwise to its extinction). Since Weber, modernization is understood as the progressive emergence of an instrumental rationality that pursues definite goals without any reference to an external authority like religion, tradition, and so on. A consequence of this move is the process of social differentiation that characterizes modern society in which the economic domain or the technological and scientific ones are autonomous, albeit interconnected. Modern States function as regulators of the interaction between these different spheres and represent the ultimate social authority, replacing churches, traditions, communities. According to the “classical” paradigm of secularization, this general trend would impact also on individuals, helping them to improve their own autonomy from external and non-rational authorities (religion in the first instance). (By the way, this remains the presupposition also for most of recent post-secularization theories.) From this perspective, modern rationality excludes any external authority. Moreover, globalization would favorite the spreading both of the process of social, economic and cultural modernization, and of the move towards full autonomy on the part of human beings.


  1. This is precisely my point. The return of the religion on the public forum and especially the increasing conflicts fostered by religions – or religious radicalism, if one prefers to use this vocabulary – imply the re-emergence of a strong principle of an external authority, to which individuals or communities turn for justifying their acting and/or to strengthen their personal or communitarian identity. Such an external authority can be the Scripture, the tradition, the community itself, a particular religious leader and so on. (One may wonder, however, whether it is also the case of other impersonal, but effective factors that function in contemporary western societies as unquestionable principles of authority, like the “free market”, the “scientific or technological progress”, “internet” and so on.) The unexpected implication of the reemerging of religions, however, is that they appear as fully compatible with some aspects of the process of modernization and especially with the purest forms of instrumental rationality individuated by Weber, i.e. science and technology. In this perspective, external authority and instrumental rationality combine themselves into a – literally – explosive mixture, as we can see in the unscrupulous use of all the features of a modern State by Isis, including international commerce and propaganda. Not to speak about the use of internet for recruiting or managing terrorism. In any case, instrumental reason does not impede the use and abuse of an absolute authority.


  1. Typical of the Western cultural tradition is the relevance of another form of rationality, which has played an intermediate role between the instrumental rationality and the principle of authority. We can define it as a “critical rationality”, but not in the sense of Karl Popper's similar formula “critical rationalism”. In my view, the term indicates the capability of reasoning in a critical form about one’s personal choices and his/her community and tradition. In other terms, the ability to have both a well-thought adhesion to external values or authority, and at the same time, a full comprehension of the relation between intentions, goals and means. (In this meaning, the Italian expression “razionalità critica” is quite common. Unfortunately, I did not find out the English equivalent.) I believe that is the critical point to evaluate the present situation. In every religion, “authority” plays a pivotal role. Even in those religious forms that are not grounded on the concept of a transcendent or almighty God it is possible to enucleate a principle that influences significantly the life of individuals or communities and to which they can refer for organize their life. This problem is particularly significant in religious context, because the idea of “god” represents the strongest form of authority, since it is thought as ruling all over the world. In this perspective, thinking of “god” represents the highest form of reflecting on the human power. Not by chance, “secularization” means exactly the transfer of the foundations of political power from the religious to the human domain. Western societies have transferred the legitimacy of authority from God to the modern State, and, subsequently in contemporary democracies, from the State to individuals.


  1. Of course, it is the result of a long historical process that begun in the 16th century with the religious wars and has led to the present separation between Church and State and to the democratic representative institutions. Now we have to face a situation where external authority (and specifically in the form of a religious authority) has got a place, which we are no more accustomed to. Moreover, also the assumption that spreading of democracy would be the leading trend after the fall of the Berlin wall has fallen down. Globalization has fostered an inverse movement in respect to what was expected. Far from supporting the spreading of secularization, globalization has imported again into Europe pre-secular religious views and practices, at the core of the secularized world. In many cases, such views, as above said, combine with certain aspects of modernity, especially technological. It is not only the case of radical Islam. Also in Catholicism, for instance, it can be observed the reemerging of practices, cults, forms of devotion, which have a strong pre-modern flavour, such as fasting, novenas and pilgrimages, where the selfie in front of the Cathedral (or with the Pope himself) substitutes the medieval relics or the seashell from Compostela. This anchoring to an external authority may function well on the level both of individuals and of communities within the actual crisis of the State and the weakening of the force of integration of democratic institutions. It represents the ultimate reason for the process of religious radicalization that can lead to a violent affirmation of religious identity, but also to pacific forms of auto-segregation from the rest of the society, which nevertheless are equally disruptive for the conception of democracy and State as we know them. It is not only the case of Islam; one may think also to Christian or Jewish fundamentalism.


  1. In my opinion, the questions, posed in the title of this meeting, need to be reversed. Radicalization is not an intrinsic problem of religion or a symptom of a religious degeneration. It is a way in which religion can be lived, when an individual relies completely on an external authority. The relationship between religious authority and individuals is at the core of the intellectual history of Western Christianity. From the origins, Christian intellectuals have developed reflections and issues on this regard, in many cases against the pretense of the religious authority, on the basis of a rational argument and of a personal assumption of responsibility in interpreting the sacred text. In this way, an uninterrupted intellectual tradition of critical reasoning has been established, even though their attempts were not successful at their times. Moreover, such a habit found out specific institutions where it was possible to cultivate it, even against the original intentions according to which they were created. The medieval university represents the best case. It is on this ground that it became possible the process of softening of the pretenses of the religious authorities and the emergence of critical approach towards them and the religion in general, which is still at the core of our approach to religious matter. Of course, it took two millennia to reach the point where we are; it needed also a particular convergence of historical factors, which functioned as catalyst (the religious wars of the 16th century being one of the most decisive). This does not imply to affirm that the history of Islam or other religions lacks of similar intellectual figures or movements. What is lacking is the continuity of similar episodes and of a large spectrum of specific institutions devoted to a critical reflection on their own (religious) tradition, which could generate changes from within. In my opinion, we are in front to a conflict within religions, more than a conflict between religions. Education, full legitimacy for a public debate over different position within religions, an inclusive vision of political authority are the main instruments that can help us to front the unexpected problems posed by the return of religion.


See also, Marco Rizzi, La secolarizzazione debole. Violenza, religione, autorità, Bologna 2016

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