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Religion and Secularism in the European Union

State of Affairs and Current Debates


Edited By Jan Nelis, Caroline Sägesser and Jean-Philippe Schreiber

The present volume monitors new developments concerning religious issues, faith-based organizations, State-Church relations and secularism in the EU, which especially during the past two decades have undergone profound changes, changes which continuously and increasingly alter mentalities and habits, whether belief-related or not. In this collective work, authors develop the major themes that are relevant to their country of expertise, while a final chapter is devoted to the role of the European Courts (ECHR and EU). The different chapters show that in recent years, religion, once thought to be of minor importance in a highly secular society, has made quite a vigorous political comeback. Thus Europe seems to have reached a crucial point in its history, a moment in which future tendencies in the field of religion and secularism are being defined, and negotiated. There is little doubt that the outcome of this process will influence the continent’s future outlook, as well as its role and relevance in an increasingly globalized world.

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Belgium. The Challenge of a Highly Secularized Yet Multiconfessional Society (Caroline Sägesser)


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The Challenge of a Highly Secularized Yet Multiconfessional Society


Université libre de Bruxelles

Belgium is historically a catholic country. A few years after the creation of the State in 1830, more than 99% of its inhabitants identified themselves as Catholic in a survey of the general population. Only a few Protestant and Jewish communities introduced some religious diversity; yet it was enough for the State to grant public subsidies to those communities alongside the powerful Catholic Church. In 19th century Belgium, the Catholic Church enjoyed wide authority, supported by an expanding network of Catholic schools and the development of a Catholic political party.

Gradually, criticism of the Church increased, anticlericalism, liberalism and free-thinking gained ground, supported by the Free University of Brussels and the masonic lodges. What is generally referred to as “the philosophical question” – the opposition between Catholics and anticlerical Liberals – came to dominate the political life of the second half of the 19th century. The Liberals’ program called for a secularization of the institutions and education, but they failed to reach that objective: Belgium never underwent a process similar to that of France, where in 1905 a law introduced separation between State and Church. Therefore, State and Church relationships in Belgium are still organized along the constitutional principles adopted in 1831.

Those principles establish freedom of religion and guarantee the right to free and public practice (Art. 19)...

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