Secularism in a religious age
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