Europe is becoming more aggressively secular but Malta – as evidenced by the hot issue of divorce – is still actively religious, according to a British philosopher.

“In Malta religious people are still calling the shots,” Roger Trigg, Academic Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Kellogg College, Oxford, said.

He cited letters to The Times, where readers made their case on divorce in quite “extreme” tones, ranging from quoting Jesus to urging MPs to vote according to their religious beliefs. Prof Trigg said that ideally legislators in Malta need to find a middle way.

“Legislators have to use their own conscience but go beyond what they think and factor in the common good when taking their decision,” Prof Trigg said.

He was recently in Malta to give a lecture on the theme “Free to Believe? A Religious Conscience in a Secular Society” organised by DISCERN – the Church’s Institute for Research on the Signs of the Times.

Malta’s divorce issue was not the central topic of Prof Trigg’s lecture. His address focused on Europe’s aggressive secularism and how untypical it was to the rest of the world. In Africa, Latin America and even the affluent US, religion is not opposed. Malta is the only exception in Western Europe but Prof Trigg said he believed, “the winds of change will be reaching the shores of Malta inevitably – sooner rather than later.”

He argued that the Council of Europe sees human rights as in opposition to religion, rather than being underwritten by it. “Not only must religious viewpoints not be given any privileged position, those view points are not even respected.” Courts were being involved in matters beyond their competence: “This is resulting in courts deciding that wearing a cross is not required by religious belief, but wearing a Sikh bangle on a Muslim headscarf is,” he said.

He referred to the case of a civil registrar in London who lost a legal battle against her sacking after she refused to register same sex partnerships on the basis of her Christian beliefs.

“The English Court of Appeal put issues of human rights and equality above any idea of freedom of religion. The Court even asserted that beliefs about marriage were not a ‘core part’ of the registrar’s religion, illuminating a dangerous tendency to get drawn into theological stances.”

The Republic of Ireland in 2010 took it a step further and brought in legislation to allow civil partnerships between same sex couples, and even threatened criminal proceedings against registrars unwilling to register them: “There is no attempt to provide for ‘reasonable accommodation’ for the religious conscience,” he said.

European law considers that you do not have to do a particular job, and must give it up if it offends your conscience: “Yet the freedom to be unemployed is not much of a freedom, is it?”

He expressed his concern that religion in Europe is too often seen as a threat to be controlled, something we should be guarded from rather than something to be nourished: “What is developing is not neutrality but often hostility to religion, with an ideology of human rights taking its place,” he said.

He said that religion was increasingly being treated as a private and personal matter, thus rendering it powerless to influence or contribute to public discussion. “There are dangers in not allowing religion to take part in ‘public reason’, apart from its positive contributions being ignored… Christianity need not fear public debate, or doubt its ability to contribute to it.”

This fear probably stemmed from an aversion to “theocracy”, where religious views were imposed, freedom of religion not respected. “The irony is that in distrusting religious influence, Europe, through its laws and collective institutions, is challenging freedom of religion, not seeing it as one of the basic human rights, and itself closely linked to democracy,” he argued.

In Europe, government “neutrality” involved a distancing from religion, so that many European states were cutting themselves off from their Christian heritage. A case in point, he said, was the Treaty of Lisbon, with its considerable resistance to mentioning Christianity, merely referring to the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe”.

“This means that we are cut off from our history and deprived of the rational underpinning for our beliefs and rights,” said Prof Trigg. He argued that neutrality was an illusion: “You need to have some principles. In the end any state will be called in to take one position or another.”

Prof. Trigg said that the tendencies to religion were deeply rooted in human nature; atheism was not a human’s default option. “Religion is as important to us as the urge to drink to eat and sleep”. Thwarting, or ignoring, religion is to ignore an important component of human life, which, like it or not, is always going to be factor.

Prof Trigg concluded by quoting his four-year old grandson who recently informed him that “God knows everything.”

“When I asked him why he thought that, my grandson looked at me and said: ‘Because God is God.’ ”­

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