Secularism is a religion amongst others

I have problems with all religions. Why? Because any religion can be used to suppress free thought, progressive movements, new ideas – and as a philosopher I trade in these things. So, any religion appears as a potential danger to me. Also, I consider myself very progressive – on the vanguard of a new world, and conservative forces appear as threats – wanting to quash our dreams and keep rebuilding the walls of our existing society, which means reproducing all its violences if potentially in slightly sanitized forms.

But there are two problems with this. The first is that no society can survive without some conservative elements. If all the structures that we use to organize ourselves are constantly in flux, constantly changing every time somebody has a new idea or something goes wrong, they will never be refined, they will never even come close to working properly – and society will erode and die. It needs to be hard to overthrow the establishment, otherwise it could be overthrown by bad ideas to the detriment of everyone.

The second follows from the first – the conservative element in nation-states is detached from traditional religions. You can call it nationalism, loyalty, state-worship – you can call it what you want, but in effect it is a religion because it embodies the conservative tendencies societies need to maintain some stability, and because it demands peoples absolute loyalty (and though it may not always get it, it gets it more or less – enough to maintain peace and order, to a degree).

So, I am not opposed to there being a state religion – I think it follows analytically from there being a state. (Actually, I don’t think there should be a state religion because I don’t think there should be a state, but that’s another story). The question is what should its content be? I think the best is for the state religion to be secular, that way it can appear not to clash with anyone’s particular religion, and we might avoid sectarian conflicts which result from people feeling like a religion is being imposed upon them.

But, at the same time, we might think that we should be honest about the state religion being a religion – because otherwise we might become radically intolerant of particular religions, seeing only the bad in them, and saying “why can’t these people be non-religious like me?” But, in fact, “me” can’t be non-religious insofar as I’m obliged to practice the state-religion of obedience to the law and loyalty to state institutions.

On the other hand, if we become too aware of secularism as a state-religion, people might begin to see how it is in conflict with their own particular religions, and decide to reject it, and we could descend to a situation of sectarian conflict.

But, I don’t think maintaining social order through a pervasive ignorance is a good  thing. It may be the situation today, but I think the situation could be improved if we decided to become more aware to the extent to which secularism and obedience to the law has become a religion. Because, after all, if we are all expected to practice it – we might want to know what it is so we can criticize it and make sure it doesn’t become pathological and murderous.

Certainly the rise of the right in Europe should be a harbinger of the dangers of not noticing the common beliefs we are expected to hold. The idea that “we” are normal and “they” are dangerous outsiders who don’t really subscribe to the state religion (various ways of saying this are, “they don’t integrate”, “they don’t learn the language”, “they obey their God above the law”, etc…) can easily become a source of sectarian hatred and violence. We should take this danger seriously, and be honest with ourselves and with others about the role of the state-religion, and think creatively about ways it can be seen as not conflicting with other religions.

We should also always remember the difference between other religions which are at the centre of a cultural identity (like white protestantism in Canada), and religions which are at the periphery – which are poorly understood, actually about which people generally understand very little at all, and what they have heard has been edited to frighten them.

So, while I have a problem with all religions, I also recognize that religion is inevitable and an essential part of human social organization. Rather than do away with religions, we should strive to live in a productive relationship with its conservative tendencies, and think openly and honesty about to what extent the conservative elements are needed, and to what extent they are destructive and should be changed or done away with.

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10 thoughts on “Secularism is a religion amongst others

  1. I think, historically, secularism is not a religion, because it is a compact between religions, that certain areas are not to be subject to competition between them. Among these areas: government, and natural philosophy (i.e. science.) The roots of secularism don’t lie in atheism, as much as they lie an intention to the kind of battles that ensue when one or another religion claims dominion over either government, or practical knowledge. Secularism is more a product of religious wars, rather than the Enlightenment per se.

  2. In most of Western history, religion has been the region in which government and natural philosophy occurred.

    Secularism as a tradition is in an important way founded in the French Revolution, which was a political event where a new idea for society which demanded people’s loyalty and was associated with rituals emerged. You can call it something else if you like, but to me, I think it’s plain that what emerged was a new religion. That religion has split, of course, one important splinter is Marxism – which while I think is still an important frame to consider as we move forward, must be recognized as having as bloody a past as any other religion.

  3. “because it is a compact between religions”

    Usually in a compact, the parties agree. Where did different religions get together and agree that they would share a secular space, giving up control over important sectors of society?

    Where and when were any of the old religions defeated without a fight? What religion freely gave up its power, rather than have it wrested away by a king or a powerful executive?

  4. You appear to have confused secularism with nationalism. Then you appear to suggest that the promotion of secularism (possibly due to this confusion meaning nationalism) is necessary to promote the stability of the state without considering the historical alternative of Absolute Monarchy. Then you questionably assert that the state demands absolute loyalty, when some of us measure a state’s legitimacy by it’s willingness to tolerate civil disobedience. You also seem to be referring to any form of deference to authority as religion, which is not necessarily the case, although I do happen to agree with your substantive point that wider scepticism with regard to commands from, practical sources of, and the theoretical concept of, authority would be desirable. However, there is considerable literature that I am afraid might be evading you by being phrased differently.

  5. I don’t think nationalism is the same as living one’s life in such a way that loyalty to the state goes unquestioned. The kind of unquestioned loyalty that states demand is not always rousing nationalistic fervour – sometimes it is just unquestioned obedience to the law. And, states can tolerate a certain amount of disobedience to the law, like non-violent civil disobedience, but they refuse to tolerate any form of violent disobedience.

    I’m calling it “secularism” because I see its spiritual founding the French Revolution. Canada is not radically secularist, for instance, because we have an absolute monarch (well, in the Hegelian sense), but when secularists start opposing religion they are quick to drum up principles like “absolute separation of Church and State” – that’s a fundamentalist secularist principle from the french revolutionary tradition.

    I agree with you that there is tolerance of wide skepticism on the origin of commands and on the theoretical concept of authority. But there is terribly little tolerance for any concrete action that challenges state authority. Also, there is a tendency among secularists to question the loyalty of certain religious groups to the state – and this isn’t a random paranoia, because it is possible that someone’s religion might be a more primary motivation than the state. Sometimes it makes sense for a state’s loyal subjects to be as worried about a religious group as they are about anarchists.

  6. Also, it’s not obvious to me that there are states in the world which are not some variant on monarchy. Certainly there are many sets of checks and balances, so that the top person can not do whatever they like, but are there any states which do not have the dominance hierarchy at least symbolized by a single person at the top? The fact that a king is elected does not make him any less a king – the election of kings by the aristocracy is an old phenomena, and if you look at the way elections are bought in the US, I don’t think it’s clear at all that our elected democracies of today are any more representative of popular interests than elected monarchies of old – in both cases what is represented is the interests of elites.

  7. Thank you very much for linking this. I may put together a new post to respond to the comments in this video.

    To start, I’d say it seems wrong to say that it is an accident of history that monotheism dominated over polytheisms. I think there are real social reasons why monotheistic religions took over from polytheistic religions, and that there is something special about Christianity and Islam which makes them more compelling in some way, and perhaps makes the people who believe them stronger against their enemies, than other religions.

    Also, I think he has unwittingly given away the cake when he endorses the value of narrative, and the value of believing certain narrative propositions as “a schema through which to look at your life”. As I understand it, that’s what a religion is. And, I completely agree with the caveat he gives afterwards: that we can’t move from the content of myth to knowledge claims. I think he gets Tarot card reading right.

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