“The path of this lecture is not ‘Here is a complex problem and here is my elegant solution,'” said Joseph H. H. Weiler to a rapt audience in Higgins 300 last Thursday. “The path of this lecture is ‘Here is a complex problem, and by the end you will realize that it is even more complex than you thought.'” Weiler, who is the Joseph Straus Professor of Law and holder of the European Union Jean Monnet Chair at New York University School of Law, gave a speech titled “Of God and Law in Europe,” co-sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, and the Boston College School of Law. The Johannesburg, South Africa native is also director of the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice, and the co-director of the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization.
Weiler’s lecture addressed the recent uptick in religious division within Europe. The professor stressed that this phenomenon, somewhat banal in the United States, has come to the forefront of European social life as recently as the past 10 years.
“In the United States, we are used to culture wars-we have been fighting culture wars for the last five or six decades, and most of our cultural conflicts have a religious tinge to them,” he said. Religion in Europe during the same time period was treated more as a private matter, but in the last decade or so, it has emerged as a point of contention. Weiler gave a few concrete examples: a British Airways cabin attendant who was forbidden to wear a cross when on the job; a recent decision in a German court that male circumcision causes serious bodily harm; and another case that Weiler himself argued for the country of Italy, where an Italian mother protested the presence of crucifixes on the walls of her son’s classroom.
Speaking softly and with a deliberate cadence, Weiler then addressed what he sees as the main religious issue in this age. “How do you draw the line between freedom of and freedom from religion?” he asked. “Today the major cleavage in society is the split between religious and nonreligious people.” The very nature of secularism as a social practice, he said, has fundamentally changed. Secularism has become like a religion in itself-now those who don’t practice a religion are often offended by those who do. “Secularists are often more militant than the religious,” Weiler said. “The religious are cowed.”
After a short tangent to discuss the unique set of tensions that Islam has brought to Europe, Weiler moved on to consider the way social conflicts are treated when religion is involved. He prefaced this by saying that individuals are legally very weak when they go up against organizations-they need specified fundamental human rights. Generally, individuals have the edge when fighting for such a right, but the addition of religion complicates the matter. Weiler used the debate over abortion as an example, noting that it sets the rights of women to control their bodies against the right to believe that life begins at conception, and to protect that right. “It’s one of the reasons it’s so complicated,” he said. “It pits a right against a right, instead of a power against a right.”
Weiler ended by pointing out that sometimes there is an unrecognized difference between people adhering to religious practice and using that religion as a shield for prejudiced action. He cited Catholic adoption agencies that will not place children with same-sex couples, questioning whether they are homophobic or simply adhering to a Catholic way of life.
“Not everything, in the name of religion, becomes kosher,” Weiler said. “Since religious people, and I count myself among them, believe not only in truth but in important truth, those debates have a sharp edge to them-and they spill over into public life.”