AEPL Report "Religion and the EU's external policies

Published on 01/01/2021

Religion and the EU's external policies. A critical analysis.


  • The European Free Thought Association has noted with interest the document drawn up by the European Parliament's Research Service on the links between the European Union's external policies and religion.
  • However, as non-confessional partners in the dialogue established by Article 17 of the TFEU, we cannot unreservedly endorse the analysis submitted to us.
  • We feel that the document, written on behalf of an institution that should be concerned to stand back sufficiently from all issues relating to religious and philosophical convictions, does not provide all the guarantees of impartiality that we might have expected from it.
  • We believe that this weakness is due to an ill-advised angle of analysis based on data that is too limited and sometimes lacking in objectivity.
  • We also believe that the favoured approach is unbalanced and gives 'religions', and more particularly 'traditional religions', a weight that bears no relation to the support they receive from their own followers.[1]. This imbalance is accentuated by the fact that contact with institutions takes too little account of dissident, heterodox movements and that women are under-represented in their hierarchies.
  • We have deliberately limited our analysis to the general considerations of the document. An analysis of national examples would have added to the weight of our document without providing any additional relevant information.
  • We remain convinced of the virtues of dialogue, especially when it concerns ethics, but we believe that this dialogue is only meaningful and interesting if all the partners involved do so with humility, without claiming to hold the Truth, and by accepting to confront the point of view of others in order to seek, together, the conditions for a harmonious "living together". We therefore regret that the current organisation of meetings, which systematically separate denominational and non-denominational organisations, does not encourage this type of encounter.


1. General philosophy of the document.

As drafted, the EPRS document[2]As a non-denominational organisation, this poses obvious problems for us.

As defenders of the impartial state, we do not contest the idea of integrating the religious dimension into a reflection on the EU's external policies, but we are nevertheless very surprised by the philosophy that emerges from the document. We question its general tone. It is these questions that we wish to raise in our note, endeavouring to do so in a positive spirit without, however, giving up the possibility of being critical.

a. Where are the non-believers?

The document begins with a statement of principle: religions need to be taken seriously. There is nothing in this introduction, which asserts that religiosity will grow in parallel with population growth, to identify what kind of religiosity we are talking about.

Furthermore, since the aim is to use diplomacy to pacify relations between citizens in European or non-European countries, non-confessionals (non-believers, non-affiliated or whatever they are called) should be taken into account much more clearly.

While we can debate the numerical evolution of this group, we cannot deny its existence, or its contribution to a living together tolerant and peaceful. It is paradoxical, moreover, to assert that modernity has more to do with pluralism than with secularisation.[3] and, at the same time, to conceal the existence of a number of citizens, varying in size depending on the country, who do not adhere to any religion.

The wording of the introduction, because it is confirmed in the rest of the analyses, gives the impression that the reader is faced with texts from the nineteenth or early twentieth century in which authors, believers, asserted - a little like Doctor Knock - that every atheist is a believer who ignores himself.

b. Is secularisation doomed to disappear?

i. An overestimation of the demographic factor.

The - in our view superficial - demonstration in point 1.1 of the introduction seems to us to be highly questionable. It leads to two astonishing assertions.

The first, according to which religiosity will increase solely as a result of demographics, seems to serve as a premise for syllogistic reasoning: if this demographic trend holds true and if people continue to adhere to the religion into which they were born, then it is indeed important to take these religions into account.

As with any syllogism, it is essential to check that the premises of the reasoning are correct before accepting the conclusion.[4] and to invite a little nuance.

The first call for caution concerns the assertion that religious people tend to have more children[5]. Yet research shows that fertility is more closely linked to socio-economic level or level of education than to religious belief. It is also worth mentioning Hans Rosling's warning that, when it comes to statistics, it is always a good idea not to have blind faith in linear growth.[6]. We must therefore consider this hypothesis to be no more than a prediction.

The second is that atheism and agnosticism will only increase in two countries,[7] seems to us to be just as audacious. It is based on a single study and seems to be contradicted by numerous other researchers. In any case, the presentation of the document is factually inaccurate, since the decline in adherence to traditional religions can be seen in European countries other than France.[8].

Furthermore, we fail to see how the demographic growth of certain religious groups outside Europe would call into question the trend towards secularisation in European countries, or the relevance of the European model. And we don't dare imagine that the authors of the dossier are planning to ask us to abandon this model, as it has developed since the end of the eighteenth century, because we would be unable to integrate migrant populations into it in the future.

ii. The question of freedom of conscience.

The exclusively demographic approach, which seems to provide an argument for those who bury secularisation, overlooks the fact that, when the conditions are right, people can distance themselves from traditional religions and above all from the social norms they want to promote or sometimes impose.[9]. It therefore seems essential to us not to separate the question of dialogue with institutions from that of the absolute protection of freedom of conscience.[10]. It is not certain, in this respect, that a dialogue which favours the most 'traditional' and 'institutional' interlocutors will facilitate this aspiration to freedom.[11]. The European and international religious landscape is constantly changing, so the question of who to contact inevitably arises.

The other crucial question in this context is whether the European institutions plan to discuss the legal and political conditions that must be met to guarantee this freedom of conscience.

iii. The question of impartiality

The argument in favour of working with religious organisations (as opposed to civil associations) is based on the sums spent (cf. § 3.2.2), as well as on the possibility of contacting a large number of people. There is no mention of any other evidence of the effectiveness of the work of religious associations, compared with the proven effectiveness of non-confessional NGOs (Amnesty International, Reporters Sans Frontières, Oxfam) in promoting human rights, including freedom of opinion and belief.

The funding of faith-based organisations that carry out social work (e.g. welcoming migrants) inevitably raises the issue of proselytism. Proselytism is, of course, an indisputable right, linked to the exercise of the freedoms guaranteed by articles 9 and 10 of the ECHR, but insofar as these associations are funded by the public authorities for these tasks and are, so to speak, carrying out a public service mission, it seems normal to require them to respect a duty of neutrality in their work.

c. What balance should be struck between institutions and dissidents?

As with the documents distributed at the time of the launch of the 'Erasmus of Religions' project, the EPRS note talks a lot about religion without ever defining precisely what is meant by this term. This shortcoming, which can be explained by the fact that there is no internationally agreed legal definition of the concept of religion, should invite all those who wish to engage in 'dialogue with religions' to exercise great caution. In this context, at least two questions arise.

i. Taking diversity into account.

It is impossible to ignore, especially in the context of the EU's international relations, that what is religion here may not be religion there. The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses and the status of Scientology, recognised as a church in the United States but sometimes considered a dangerous sect in France or Germany, are just a few examples, but they could be multiplied according to local situations. Specialists are well aware of this difficulty and it is getting worse all the time. Are Pastafarians followers of a new religion or just mild fantasists? Can Wicca practitioners fit into the global religious landscape?

While these questions may legitimately arise, the answers they receive vary widely and show that the institutions that have to respond to them can only do so after careful consideration.

These simple observations show that the reintegration of the religious question into the realm of diplomacy sometimes poses as many problems as it offers solutions.[12].

ii. The question of representativeness.

Traditional religious institutions obviously offer the European Parliament and the Commission the advantage of being easily identifiable interlocutors. But the landscape of modern religiosity should prompt serious reflection on the representativeness of these institutions - and, as a corollary, their legitimacy to influence legislative processes - at a time when the question of adherence to dogma or doctrine is becoming ever more acute.

In Europe, statistics on the gap, for example, between the number of people baptised and the number of people attending religious services show that the concept of a "religious community" is not a simple one. Belonging without believingdeveloped by Prof. Grace DAVIE[13]is fully relevant. Numerous studies have shown that it is possible to define oneself as Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, etc. without complying to the letter with the ethical prescriptions of their respective theological authorities.

None of the great classical religious families can be considered as a homogeneous group in its relationship with doctrine. They all include a range of sensibilities, from the most 'fundamentalist' to the most 'liberal'.[14].

d. Where are the women?

It is to be welcomed that among the concerns that the external services of the EU and the Parliament wish to share with religions and the other partners of Art. 17, there are two important issues: conflict prevention and development. And even if we seem to ignore it too often, these two issues concern women first and foremost. For conflict resolution, because they are, along with children, the first victims of conflicts; for development, because their empowerment often has a decisive effect on improving living conditions.

What concerns us about the note's approach is that the strategy that is taking shape mainly involves dialogue with male religious dignitaries, defending doctrines that are not always very favourable to improving the status of women.[15].

2. Sources of information.

a. Pluralistic sources?

Having not consulted each of the many sources cited in the document, it is not our intention to call them into question. However, we do wonder about the predominance of Anglo-Saxon, or even exclusively American, sources. Are European researchers non-existent or incompetent, or is their absence due to the fact that the document is written in English and that European studies are not always translated into this language?

It is nevertheless difficult to believe that, given the difference between the place occupied by religions in the United Kingdom or the United States and that in highly secularised countries such as France, the Netherlands or Belgium, for example, this choice is without consequence for certain orientations.

It is also hard to believe that there is no relevant research being produced in Europe. Initiatives such as the EUREL network, the Observatoire des religions et de la Laïcité de l'Université Libre de Bruxelles (ORELA) and the Understanding Unbelief University of Kent[16] are good examples.

b. Some methodological biases.

It is not our intention to dispute the seriousness of the Pew Research Center's surveys, at least when they are conducted in a normal context. But data relating to religion and beliefs are, by their very nature, sensitive, difficult to obtain and therefore complicated to interpret. It is therefore not out of place to ask whether these difficulties are taken into account in the studies in question.

While it is common practice in the United States to declare one's religion, this is not possible in many other countries. Who would declare their atheism without hesitation in Saudi Arabia, Iran or even Russia? Who would admit to belonging to a minority religion (Copts in Egypt, Baha'is in Iran, etc.) in countries where apostasy is penalised, or even punishable by death? It therefore seems to us that projections on the future evolution of religious adherence should be taken much more cautiously than in current documents.

Lastly, however, there are some real technical questions to be asked about some of the Pew Research Center's forecasts, and these questions cannot be completely ignored, as a number of critical articles have shown.[17]. As Daniel KHANEMAN wrote, you have to be careful with scenarios.[18]

3. Another approach to dialogue.

a. A soul for Europe.

We are particularly disappointed, but also concerned, by the passage in the document relating to the principle of dialogue initiated at the end of the nineties by Jacques DELORS and, in particular, to his wish to give a soul for Europe. Our disappointment stems from the fact that this first attempt is particularly poorly documented and presented here in a completely superficial and incomplete manner. This is all the more regrettable given that the work of a French researcher, Bérengère Massignon, produced a fairly comprehensive and particularly interesting analysis at the time.[19]/[20].

We are also concerned that the dialogue initiative, the brainchild of Jacques Delors, which ran from 1995 to 2005 under the name of Giving Europe a soul and then A soul for Europe - ethics and spirituality. Throughout its existence, this initiative was chaired by the current President of AEPL-EU, Claude WACHTELAER.

We are entitled to wonder about the note's silence on this experience, which preceded the introduction of the Article 17 mechanism. Should we blame a lack of usable archives or was it appropriate not to point out that this initiative organised - in accordance with Jacques Delors' wishes - a genuine cross-disciplinary dialogue including believers and non-believers?

The aim of Une âme pour l'Europe was to encourage reflection on meaning, and included a strong ethical dimension.[21]. One of the evaluation criteria for project funding stated : "Projects must provide for inter-religious or ecumenical/humanist participation, and even cooperation. Projects that include Muslims at local level will be considered with particular interest".[22]

b. Dialogue or clericalism 2.0?

On several occasions we have regretted that dialogue with the institutions is organised in separate groups: believerson the one hand, non-believers', of each other. Of course, the opportunity given to all the partners to dialogue with the institutions is a very interesting one. But 'vertical' dialogue, as opposed to 'horizontal' dialogue, as Jacques Delors intended, perhaps misses out on what is essential in the production of a genuine consensus: the confrontation of ideas.

Each partner in the dialogue has - and this is the rule of the game - the will to promote its ideas and present them to the political authorities of the Union. But the absence of horizontal dialogue between the partners does not help to nuance their respective positions. Each partner, believing - rightly or wrongly - that it holds the truth on the issue in question, may therefore try to influence the political authorities by resorting to all available forms of power relations. In our view, the demand by certain partners to intervene institutionally upstream of the legislative process is not a matter of dialogue - or even lobbying in the strict sense - but of a revisited clericalism that we cannot accept. This drift can also be seen in the imbalance between denominational and non-denominational organisations in terms of meetings organised by Parliament or speakers invited to take the floor. We have already had occasion on two occasions to deplore this imbalance in letters to Ms McGuiness.[23].

4. Conclusions.

The document we have analysed has the merit of existing. But, as you will have gathered, it is far from satisfactory.

It is based on questionable conceptual choices and does not seem to us to offer sufficient guarantees for the defence of the values of the European model of democracy.unity in diversity or pluralist living together.

Of course, in the context of international relations, there is no question of 'selling' our model as the only valid one, and we therefore understand that the document takes account of different sensitivities, including religious ones. But the fact remains that, before there is any dialogue between communities, we need to promote one of the fundamental values shared by most EU countries: complete freedom of conscience. It is out of the question, therefore, to endorse, through dialogue between religious institutions, the many obstacles to the exercise of this freedom that prevent individuals from freeing themselves, whenever they wish, from the confines of their communities.

On the other hand, we welcome the fact that the EU institutions are seeking an ethical perspective on certain issues. But there is no reason to think - as has been the case for too long - that the answers to these ethical questions depend solely on references to one or other form of transcendence, relegating all other approaches to the background. That's why we attach so much value to the calm confrontation of points of view and the pragmatic search for solutions to the problems we all face. The 'A Soul for Europe' initiative highlighted the value of this approach, and other voices are also calling for the practice of dialogue to be broadened wherever possible.[24].


[1] The EPRS document, and more broadly the organisation of dialogue by the EP, deserves the same criticism as that addressed by the philosopher François DE SMET to the decisions of the ECHR when they concern issues of freedom of belief or religion: " While it may seem logical to avoid extending the protection of the Convention to any individual claiming to be a member of his or her own religion, such an approach in fact favours established and hermetic cults, and disfavours new, singular and reforming cults. To use the analogy with the business world, one may legitimately wonder whether the Court is not favouring monopolies and rents to the detriment of the self-employed and small entrepreneurs. DE SMET, F., Deus casino, PUF, 2020.

[2] PERCHOC, P., Religion and the EU's external policies, Increasing engagementEuropean Parliamentary Research Service, PE 646.173, 2020.

[3] While pluralism is a system of political organisation that recognises and accepts the diversity of opinions and their representatives, secularisation is about the autonomy of political and social structures from religions. This statement therefore mixes two concepts that are, in our view, perfectly distinct. It is, moreover, contradicted, among others, by Jürgen Habermas, who makes secularisation one of the characteristics of modernity.

[4] This is an opportunity to recall the logical principle 'ex falso sequitur quodlibet'.

[5] 'Religious people tend to have more children', Religion and EU's external policies, p.1.

[6]ROSLING, H., Factfulness, ch. 3, The straight line instinct, 2018.

[7] Atheism and agnosticism are most likely to increase in only two countries USA and France, EPRS study, p.1

[8] SCHREIBER, JP, The evolution of religious beliefs in figures: the singular cases of Belgium and the USA, ORELA, Brussels.

[9] For example, the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland invokes the authority of the Holy Trinity has not prevented the Republic from authorising voluntary termination of pregnancy and same-sex marriage.

[10] We told Ms MOGHERIINI that it was a mistake, in the context of her Erasmus for Religions project, to set aside these issues while seeking dialogue'.We fail to understand why the LOKAHI report recommends putting aside the questions related with FoRB. What hope do we have to tackle important problems like social inclusion or active citizenship, when, at the same time, we condone scandals like discrimination based on religion, attacks on freedom of speech, condemnation of apostasy?' (our letter of 6 October 2019).

[11] See on the case of Lebanon: JREIJIRY, Roy, The Lebanese political system as an obstacle to collective non-confessional mobilisation: the case of the 'Civil Movement 2015, presentation at the Formatting non-religion in late modern society - Institutional and legal perspectives, Eurel/University of Oslo, 2018.

[12]  It should be remembered that, although the issue of freedom of conscience was not absent from the concerns of the drafters of the first amendment to the American constitution, they refrained above all from establishing a religion, given that it was impossible to agree on which to choose from among those that existed in the founding states! Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion is less the reflection of an ideological choice than a pragmatic way out of a tricky problem.

[13] DAVIE, G. Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without BelongingLondon, 1994.

[14] RIVA, V. The French debate on the Christian roots of Europe. A reconversion of political and religious resources', 2006.

[15] On this subject, see Resolution 1464(2005) of the Council of Europe, which states that :

  1. Religion continues to play an important role in the lives of many European women. Indeed, whether they are believers or not, most women are affected in one way or another by the position of different religions towards women, either directly or through their traditional influence on society or the state.
  2. This influence is rarely harmless: women's rights are often restricted or trampled underfoot in the name of religion. While most religions teach that women and men are equal before God, they assign them different roles on earth. Gender stereotypes motivated by religious beliefs have given men a sense of superiority that has led to discriminatory treatment of women by men, even resorting to violence.


[17] De Féo, A., Why these figures on the number of Muslims in Europe are unreliable,, 2017

[18] 'They constructed a very complicated scenario and insisted on calling it highly probable. It is not: it is only a plausible story', in Daniel KAHNEMAN, Thinking fast and slow, London, 2011.

[19] See point 2.2.1 of the document and in particular note 10.

[20] MASSIGNON, B., Gods and civil servants, religions and secularism in the challenge of European integration, Rennes, 2007, particularly chapter IV.

[21] 'We are at a crossroads in European history where the debate on meaning is becoming essential. European integration must be understood not only in its economic and political dimensions, but also in its spiritual and ethical dimensions. Our aim is to encourage those who are aware of this challenge to make their own specific contribution to the unification of Europe', Critères pour l'acceptation des projets, in MASSSIGNON, B., op. cit. p. 184, note 5.

[22] MASSSIGNON, B., op. cit, p. 184.

[23] " [...[ Everybody is of course entitled to his opinions, including M. JUREK or Bishop HOOGENBOOM. But when the meeting gives them the opportunity to speak - so to say - from the pulpit, they occupy some sort of moral high ground vis-à-vis the people who are not members of a Church and who are seated on the backbenches. These few examples justify our repeated requests for a more balanced form of dialogue between the Institutions, the Churches and the non-confessional organizations. Mrs BYRNE rightly pleaded for more progress towards a pluralist Europe. We are convinced that this pluralist Europe, opening the space for a peaceful living together will be better achieved by a dialogue that allows some contradiction into it. Faced with the self-righteousness of one side, the other side will only react by crispation and unwillingness to find common ground for progress. Though we are mostly non-believers, we have no hostility against faith. But clericalism - and by that we mean a domination of civil society by religious groups - is an obstacle to peaceful cohabitation of people with different religious or secular worldviews, worse, it is even an obstacle, for the believers, to the peaceful exercise of religious liberty". Our letter of 12 December 2018

[24]   [6.17] " It has long been recognised that special efforts are required to promote engagement between young people of different faiths and beliefs.There is also a need for more dialogue which focuses specifically on engagement between those who are religious and those who are not, with a variety of patterns of engagement of nonreligious people with dialogue partners from one, two or more religious traditions. As shown throughout this report, it is essential that free debate about secularism and the place of religion and belief in the public square continues apace; however, there also needs to be structured dialogue on the substantive content of different philosophical, as well as religious, traditions.

There is a wide range of non-religious perspectives and beliefs, just as there is among those who have a religious commitment. But there are no non-religious communities in the same sense as there are individual faith communities and this is an important factor in organising broader dialogue processes.

The British Humanist Association, for example, does not claim to represent all those who are not religious. It does, however, currently have a dialogue officer who can help facilitate the participation of humanists in dialogue events.19 In Scotland there has been significant progress in recent years in developing regular engagement between Scottish Churches and the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS). As noted in chapter 4, in 2014 a joint document on replacing the requirement for a regular religious observance in schools with a time for reflection was produced jointly by the Church of Scotland and the HSS".

BUTLER-SLOSS, The Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth, Report Of The Commission On Religion And Belief In British Public Life, Living With Difference, community, diversity and the common good, 2015

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