Secular States and Monotheistic Religions

Giovanni Sale, SJ

 Giovanni Sale, SJ / Full Text Article / 1 October 2019

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According to Max Weber the formation of modern legal systems must be read in parallel with the process of secularization of the modern state and of civil and political society, which has separated the religious sphere from the secular, formulating new ethical and political principles to regulate the organization of the state and the coexistence of people, thus erasing from state law the original sacred elements inherited from ancient traditions.[1]

This approach to the subject of the foundation of modern legal systems is strongly marked by a Eurocentric perspective and cannot be used to interpret situations existing in other parts of the world where religious traditions other than Christianity prevail. In this regard it is legitimate to ask with philosopher Silvio Ferrari, “whether it is correct to proceed with the classification of the different legal systems starting from the degree of separation of law from religion, politics, tradition, and whether this approach constitutes another projection of Eurocentric models onto realities that could be better analyzed starting from other interpretative keys.”[2]

In fact, the theme of the secular nature of the state in both Jewish and Islamic circles has been formulated historically in a completely different way from the Western model and has generated a different legal culture from that formed during the modern era in the world of Christian tradition. At the heart of this question is the role of the relevance of religious law in the formation of legal systems.

In this article we will compare the three religions of the Abrahamic tradition on the subject of secularization, underlining the different approaches they have taken, especially in recent centuries, toward modernity, understood, according to the Weberian theory, as the secularization of the state structure and its juridical institutions.[3]

The secular in Christian tradition and culture

The distinction between religious and secular spheres in Christian society is the result of a long and articulated historical process. There were already signs of it in the first centuries of Christianity, at least in the western part of the Roman Empire, and it found its first theoretical elaboration in medieval thought (William of Ockham and Marsilio Ficino), reaching a peak in the 16th century, developing a rational and temporal approach to the realities of politics and the right conduct of the state.

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