Davidyan on Liberalism and Religion

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference with LUMSA University in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Gayane Davidyan (Lomonosov) submitted the following paper for Workshop 2, on religious exemptions, which we are delighted to publish here:

Slightly expanding the problem of our discussion, I will go beyond the borders of the United States and Western Europe, and pose a general question: arising on a certain soil under favorable historical conditions, is liberalism a national phenomenon, inherent only in a particular type of society or state? People with liberal views and values ​​live at all times and across the globe. Even in dark times, in conditions of slavery and serfdom, thinkers wrote about the values ​​of freedom and law; historical figures like Spartak, Emelyan Pugachev fought for this freedom.

As you know, the foundations of modern European liberalism begin to take shape in the 16th-17th centuries. John Locke, in “Two Treatises on Government,” formulates the most important principles that formed the basis of the future political and social liberalism: economic freedom as the possession and use of property, and intellectual freedom, including freedom of conscience. The second principle, in his opinion, is the right to life, personal freedom, and private property. People fought for a long time to obtain and assert these rights and values and are still fighting every day. The most advanced ideas of liberalism had a great influence on Russian reality at the end of the 18th century. Empress Catherine the Great, studying the ideas of Montesquieu, Cesare Beccaria, and Voltaire, wrote an order to the deputies of a special legislative commission in order to change the concept of royal power in Russia. Liberal ideas developed further and led to fairly liberal reforms in the second half of the 19th century. However, the reception of Western European liberal ideas in Russia did not take place. And against the background of a strong absolute monarch, all these reforms seem to be “quasi-reforms.” Does this mean that liberalism as a system of organizing social and state life can form the basis only for some states that have a special specific path of development, a special culture, and other features? I would not agree with this, since the desire for freedom, dignity, and the preservation of life are the basic needs of a person with any worldview, and one can hardly speak here about the advantage of one civilization over another.

But liberalism is not only ideas; it is also necessary that a sufficient social environment exist for their perception. In Russia, it was clearly insufficient. And here, the problem was rooted. The limited social environment made it impossible to realize the liberal concept. This was the reason why ideas remained ideas.

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