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Top>Opinion>The Publicness of Religion and the State


The Publicness of Religion and the State

Hideki Shibata
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Western economic history

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Generally speaking, religion in Japan means a kind of superstition, magical thinking, or mistaken belief, and thus, is often undervalued. In other countries, however, religious institutions remain very influential. Certainly, nobody can write critically about Christianity without expecting a severe counter-offensive. For example, Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere has been criticized since its publication because it lacks an argument about the religious public sphere; in the end, Habermas appeased the critics and offered a religious perspective in some of his later articles.

In my lectures on Western Economic History, I cannot help but argue about Christianity when dealing with the pre-modern political system. The feudal system, which developed from relationships of private dominance, was very insecure and needed the additional public authority of a religious organization. In the High Middle Ages, Christian churches became organized and began to contest feudal lords for political power. The question was which one was more public, religious authority or secular power.

Sociology of Domination and Modern Civil Revolution

Max Weber argues that domination needs a shared belief in its own legitimacy that is recognized by both the dominant and subordinate classes. He identified three major types of domination: charismatic, traditional, and legitimate. According to him, the prototypical form of charismatic domination is religious domination, and the prototypical example of traditional domination is feudal domination.

The Modern Civil Revolution attempted to deprive monarchs of their power and to separate church and state. This should have led to the decline of both charismatic and traditional forms of domination, and heralded the era in which legitimate domination prevails. Indeed, the legitimacy of the governing systems of contemporary democratic countries is based on legitimate domination, namely the legitimacy of the rule of law, under which such domination is accepted, essentially, by individuals’ free will. That is to say, people elect representatives and enact laws through them on the basis of their own free will. Such laws are binding on the people, which means that people are willingly bound by laws that are made with their consent, thus, on the basis of their own free will. In this sense, legitimate domination is the triumph of the development of modern self-consciousness from Descartes to Hegel.

Karl Marx, however, criticizes the modern state from the point of view of the separation of state and civil society, and argues that the modern state stands on the social and economic inequality inherited from the pre-modern era, and is a correlate of it. According to Marx, this structure is shared by the modern and pre-modern eras in which religion was an important element for social integration.

The perfect political state is, by its nature, man’s species-life, as opposed to his material life. All the preconditions of this egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the sphere of the state, but as qualities of civil society. Where the political state has attained its true development, man --- not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life --- leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the playing of alien powers. (On the Jewish Question)

The Relationship between the Secular Political State and Religion

In reality, the relationship between the modern state and religion is not so simple. In Germany after World War I, for example, the state-church system ended and the religious neutrality of the state and freedom of religion became guaranteed. The Weimar Constitution abolished the state-church system and prohibited state regulation of the church. On the other hand, it dealt well with churches, for example, by authorizing religious organizations that were recognized as corporations under public law, to collect a church tax. The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, which was established in 1949, covered the provisions of the state-church relationship from the Weimar Constitution.

The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany guarantees the freedom of religion, separation of the state and religion, and autonomy of religious corporations. This is the basis for the relationship between the state and religious institutions. Christian churches, which are recognized as corporations under public law, are also not-for-profit organizations, and thus have immunity from taxation while being allowed to collect church taxes. The state financially supports church kindergartens and church schools. The church uses the church tax, which the state collects for and on behalf of churches, for social activities, which complement the public social security systems; the churches are highly regarded as important agents of the public social security system, especially by the conservatives. Further, the Basic Law also requires religious education as a regular course in schools.

The preferential treatment of churches in the constitutional order occurred under the influence of political parties that have Christian perspectives at their core, such as the Central Party, Christian Democratic Union, and Christian Social Union. Any constitution or basic law would not have been easily established without the help of these parties.

We should not, however, consider the preferential treatment of churches only from the viewpoint of political and historical developments. Most German constitutional scholars have supported the view that the relationship between state and religion should not be understood in a radically secular way, but that churches must be recognized as public and socially important institutions.

In Germany, the church and state are partners and their mutual rights and responsibilities are upheld in covenants between churches and the federal government and local states, called Konkordat (Catholic) and Vertrag (Protestant).

Thus, religion and state compete against each other as public agents even in the modern era. Some Islamic fundamentalists criticize the whole European value system as profane and Christian, while people in western countries demand the recognition of European values and ways of life by Islamic immigrants. The concept of “individual free will” or the “independent individual” originates from the Christian idea of “humans in the image of God.” Therefore, the conflict of values can be solved only by criticizing the principles of individual free will and the independent individual that are the foundation of the modern state. This is one of the primary issues for contemporary thinkers.

The primary theme of contemporary thinkers

For example, Nietzsche, one of the earliest modern thinkers in this line, writes as follows, pointing out the danger of beginning with an uncritical recognition of the supreme principles, such as “I,” “self,” or “free will”:

A lack of the historical sense is the hereditary fault of all philosophers; many, indeed, unconsciously mistake the very latest variety of man, such as has arisen under the influence of certain religions, certain political events, for the permanent form from which one must set out. They will not learn that man has developed, that his faculty of knowledge has developed also …… But everything has evolved; there are no eternal facts, as there are likewise no absolute truths. Therefore, historical philosophising is henceforth necessary, and with it the virtue of diffidence. (Human, All Too Human)

Additionally, Freud, an Austrian psychiatrist, attempted to explain the structure of the human mind in terms of the interrelation of biological individuality and social community. In his theory of the development of the human mind, “infantile sexuality,” which originates from human biological individuality, plays an important role. It is a kind of sexuality that has nothing to do with reproduction and is, in this sense, “perverse.” It is the cause of the strong physical relationship of hugs and other physical bonds between infants and their caregivers. It is not critically necessary in order for infants to sustain life, but it develops interrelationship between them and the outer world. In this way, they can form intimate personal relationships with adult members of the social community from an early stage, from whom they learn the necessary mental functions. Infants who enjoy this sexual two-person relationship gradually learn to form more developed social relationships, or three-person relationships; Freud calls the psychological experiences in this process the “Oedipus complex.”

Newborns are dominated by the biological “id”; then the “ego” gradually comes to exist with the outer environment, which is not the biological natural environment but the social community made up of adults with mature egos. The community transmits its rules to infants in their process of development. The set of rules that finally get absorbed in the minds of infants and become their inner power is called the “superego” by Freud.

Such explanations by Freud counter notions of the “free, autocratic, and rational individual,” and have provoked both sympathy and criticism.


Not a few of you, university freshmen and fresh-women, may be interested in religion and philosophical thought, regardless of your majors, for you are in the stage of mental development in which such interests are natural. Incidentally, the university has lectures, courses, and staff that correspond to these, so why not take advantage of the opportunity to learn about the research of domestic and foreign specialists, study your individual selves more deeply, and collect credits that satisfy your interests?

Further reading
  • Omote, Saburo. 2016. “Bensho-Ho wo Yomigaêraseru tame ni” [For the Resurgence of Dialectic], in Journal of Economics (Chuo-University). Vol. 57, Nos. 1 & 2, pp. 111–151 (trans. by Hideki Shibata).
  • Shibata, Hideki. 2016. “Dialectical Materialism and Subject: Monism and Dialectic,” in Journal of Economics (Chuo-University). Vol. 57, Nos. 3 & 4, pp. 243–258.
  • Shibata, Hideki. 2016. “Dialectical Materialism and Science,” in Journal of Economics (Chuo-University). Vol. 57, Nos. 5 & 6, pp. 175–192.
Hideki Shibata
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Western economic history
Professor Shibata was born in Fukui Prefecture in 1964. He graduated from the Faculty of Economics, the University of Tokyo in 1988, and then went on to complete his doctoral coursework at the Graduate School of Economics, the University of Tokyo, without a degree in 1994. He holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Tokyo. Shibata worked as an Assistant and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Economics, Chuo University before being appointed to his current position in 2003. His current research topics include revealing the true meaning of Marxist dialectical materialism and issues with foreign workers in Germany. His most recent works are “The Dialectical Materialism and Subject: Monism and Dialectic” and “The Dialectical Materialism and Science”, both published in Volume 57 (nos. 3 & 4 and nos. 5 & 6, respectively) of the Journal of Economics (Chuo University) in 2017.