Sec­u­lar­ism in a religious age

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - Henry Sre­brnik is a pro­fes­sor of political sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

One of the ma­jor de­bates of our time deals with the is­sue of re­li­gion and sec­u­lar­ism in western so­ci­eties. In democ­ra­cies, should re­li­gion be forced into the pri­vate sphere with lit­tle or no pub­lic voice?

So­ci­ol­o­gist José Casanova of Ge­orge­town Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton con­tends that we are now wit­ness­ing a process of “de­pri­va­ti­za­tion” of re­li­gion as a global trend.

The very no­tion of sec­u­lar­ism de­rives from western Chris­tian, that is, Ro­man Catholic doc­trine, where the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal and tem­po­ral do­mains were not fused but had dual spheres, un­like in Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity, Is­lam, and other re­li­gions.

This would even­tu­ally, in mod­ern repub­li­can France, turn into laic­ité, a rigid form of sec­u­lar­ism which is cen­tral to the at­ti­tude that the French state and the French peo­ple have come to hold to­wards re­li­gion.

This form of sec­u­lar­ism, which is of­ten termed anti-cler­i­cal­ism, aims to con­tain and marginal­ize ev­ery­thing religious, and ban it from any vis­i­ble pres­ence in the sec­u­lar pub­lic square. It pre­sumes that th­ese older tra­di­tions have now, in the mod­ern world, been tran­scended.

As Wil­liam Con­nolly, a political the­o­rist at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity in Bal­ti­more, has noted, laic­ité as­so­ciates sec­u­lar­ism with ra­tio­nal ar­gu­ment, tol­er­ance, and the pub­lic in­ter­est. It con­sid­ers it­self neu­tral and value-free, while re­li­gion is as­so­ci­ated with in­tol­er­ance and vi­o­lence.

Hence re­li­gion is for­bid­den to in­ter­vene in mat­ters of state. Its place is in civil so­ci­ety, if at all. Hence the pro­hi­bi­tion of head­scarves and other religious sym­bols in pub­lic schools.

The Protes­tant form of sec­u­lar­ism, es­pe­cially in its so-called “Judeo-Chris­tian” Amer­i­can ver­sion, is dif­fer­ent. While there is strict for­mal sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, there is a blur­ring of the bound­aries be­tween faith and pol­i­tics, re­sult­ing in a blend­ing of the two, such that the religious be­comes sec­u­lar and the sec­u­lar religious.

In this type of sec­u­lar­ism, re­li­gion be­comes a source of unity and iden­tity, a “civil re­li­gion” that, ac­cord­ing to a political sci­en­tist El­iz­a­beth Hurd of North­west­ern Univer­sity in Evanston, Illinois, em­pha­sizes the con­nec­tions be­tween the moral val­ues of re­li­gion and mod­ern demo­cratic gov­er­nance.

So re­li­gion plays a role within sec­u­lar pol­i­tics, serv­ing, writes Ted Je­len, a political sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ne­vada, Las Ve­gas, as “the ba­sis of an eth­i­cal con­sen­sus with­out which pop­u­lar govern­ment could not op­er­ate.”

The ob­jec­tive is not to ex­pel re­li­gion from pol­i­tics in the name of an in­de­pen­dent ethic, but to ac­com­mo­date “a shared ad­her­ence to a shared religious tra­di­tion” in the body politic, one that rises above any spe­cific church or creed. Re­li­gion is seen as foun­da­tional to Amer­i­can na­tional iden­tity.

“Re­li­gion shapes the na­tion’s char­ac­ter,” ob­serves Wal­ter Rus­sell Mead, pro­fes­sor of for­eign affairs and hu­man­i­ties at Bard Col­lege in New York.

This type of sec­u­lar­ism in­cor­po­rates a wa­tered-down, com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor form of religious plu­ral­ism, one that does not priv­i­lege any par­tic­u­lar de­nom­i­na­tion. Hence the use of a gen­er­al­ized faith-based ter­mi­nol­ogy in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, some­thing that does not oc­cur in France.

The two main western forms of sec­u­lar­ism, which view re­li­gion as mainly an in­di­vid­ual, not col­lec­tive, mat­ter, were not de­signed for states with very deep religious di­ver­sity, he warns, es­pe­cially when they in­clude faiths in con­flict with one an­other the­o­log­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally.

So they are ill pre­pared to meet the chal­lenges posed by fun­da­men­tal­ist Is­lam in to­day’s “com­pe­ti­tion of be­liefs,” ar­gues Ox­ford emer­i­tus political philoso­pher Larry Sieden­top. We shall see.

Henry Sre­brnik Guest Opin­ion

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