Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Faith in Reason

Secular fantasies of a godless age

by John Gray

Harper's Magazine (January 2008)

Discussed in this essay:

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor. Harvard University Press. 896 pages. $39.95.

Secularism Confronts Islam, by Olivier Roy. Translated by George Holoch. Columbia University Press. 128 pages. $24.50.

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla. Alfred A Knopf. 336 pages. $26.

There exists a widespread belief that as people become more modern they become less religious; that the ongoing growth of human knowledge contributes to the development of human reason, with the result that societies become ever more secular. Religion retreats as science advances, and the end point of this process will be a world in which the traditional faiths of humankind disappear. This was the expectation of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, along with many other political thinkers, and in the twentieth century the same expectation had a powerful influence in the social sciences. Religion, in this view, is not the expression of a primary human need; it is a by-product of ignorance, or else the result of poverty or political repression. Once these adverse conditions have been overcome, religion will vanish from human life, or at least dwindle into insignificance.

This common notion of secularization must be distinguished from the political doctrine of secularism, which stipulates that the state must use its power to limit the role of religion in the public sphere. In fact, the demand for a secular state originated among dissenting religious believers who suffered persecution by established churches, and many who support a secular state today are believers who nonetheless see the desirability of separating faith and politics. Secularization and secularism are clearly different ideas. Yet although the two are distinct they are not unconnected, for a secular regime aims to appeal only to beliefs and values that can be accepted by believers and nonbelievers alike. Like those who subscribe to the theory of secularization, secularists assume that government can be purged of religious influences. Both assume that religion and politics can be held apart.

Nevertheless, recent developments suggest that religion and politics are not as separable as had been assumed. Terrorism, for example, is a complex phenomenon whose causes include social and geopolitical conflicts, but its use by Islamist groups has brought religion into the center of the international arena in a way that few Western observers anticipated. At the same time, religious believers in many countries have mobilized to promote a "politics of values". Conflicts over abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia have helped shape the trajectory of American politics, and a similar trajectory can be observed in certain European countries. Until recently, Poland was governed by a Catholic party that supported Christian values, and in Britain, where the majority has long since ceased to follow any traditional faith, Muslims, Sikhs, evangelical Christians, and other religious minorities have demanded censorship of artistic performances they judge to be offensive.

There is a real question, then, as to whether any process of secularization is actually under way. If societies become less religious as they become more modern, how is it that the United States - which sees itself and is seen by others as the epitome of a modern country, with the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution - remains as religious at the start of the twenty-first century as it was in the early part of the nineteenth century, when Alexis de Tocqueville noted the intense religiosity of American life? Is America an anomaly among advanced societies, or is the theory of secularization flawed? If the power of religion can be limited by a secular state, why does religious fundamentalism play a larger role in American political life than it does in the political life of any other developed country? The experience of the past decade has made such questions highly pertinent, but they are rarely explored in public discourse. Instead, debate has been dominated by the polemical assaults of evangelical atheists who attack religion as a harmful relic of the past. Obsessed by the current excesses of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, such writers as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins not only renew the demand for a secular state; they seek to create a secular civilization.

In these circumstances, it is refreshing to read an inquiry into the condition of religion that is exploratory in its approach. Charles Taylor, a Roman Catholic as well as one of the world's leading political theorists, does not aim to attack or defend any system of belief in his new book, A Secular Age. Rather, he wants to elucidate the very idea of a secular world. For Taylor, the difference between the pre-modern Western world and the modern West is not simply that beliefs held then are no longer accepted today; it is that the entire framework of thought has changed. The world in 1500 was understood to contain spiritual beings - angels, demons, and God - that produced natural events such as floods and plagues and were intimately involved in the course of history. In this "enchanted world" - as Taylor, following the German sociologist Max Weber, calls it - intentions and decisions were not ascribed only to human agents; they pervaded the cosmos, which was and always remained the creation of a divine being. For those who understood the world in this way, "atheism comes close to being inconceivable": unbelief is not an option. With the rise of science, however, an alternative perspective became widely available, in which impersonal mechanisms, rather than anything like divine agency, came to be seen as elemental to the world. As Taylor recognizes, scientific advances did not lead inexorably to atheism, and many of the pioneers of modern science retained aspects of monotheism: Newton was a Christian with fundamentalist leanings; Darwin held to a version of Deism for many years. Still, modern science did open up a different way of viewing the world, and as a result, religion became a choice rather than an inextricable part of life. According to Taylor, it is chiefly this shift that produced the secular era in which we live today.

Taylor is surely right when he suggests that the secular era began when religion ceased to be integral to how we understand and experience the world. The disputes of the Reformation were bitter and bloody, but the protagonists invoked a shared understanding of the universe as being governed by a divine figure. It was only later that an impersonal, godless world became widely conceivable. Once this happened, religion became a choice, and justifying state power in terms that extended beyond the human realm became more difficult. A concept of government was needed that could be accepted both by those who thought of the world as being infused with divine agency and by those who did not. Developing such a concept has been the central project of modern political thought.

Although Taylor's account of the shift that took place with the rise of modern science identifies a crucial feature of secular thought, he hasn't grasped the extent to which religious - and, more specifically, Christian - ideas underpin the secular era he describes. The European Enlightenment may have been hostile to Christianity, but a Christian framework still informed the view of history adopted by those Enlightenment thinkers campaigning for universal human emancipation, who were very different from humanists in the pre-Christian world. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and poets, such as the hedonist Epicurus and his disciple Lucretius, rejected the religions of their time (without denying the existence of the gods); their goal was one of achieving tranquillity by withdrawing from the world rather than one of striving to change it, and they had no dreams of universal human freedom. The world-transforming hopes of modern humanism derive not from these thinkers but from Christianity, with its promise of salvation.

Taylor acknowledges that "the new humanism has taken over universalism from its Christian roots", yet he fails to note the other ways in which modern secular humanism replicates Christian patterns of thinking. In pre-Christian Europe, history was seen as a succession of cycles similar to those that occur in the natural world; it had no overall purpose or goal. This is a view shared by such non-Western religions as Hinduism and Buddhism, which understand salvation not as an event in time but as liberation from time itself. Christianity, by contrast, has always viewed history as having an end point - when salvation is granted to believers. Visions of the End recurred throughout medieval and early-modern times, and they have persisted throughout the secular era.

The role of the end-time in fueling revolutionary upheavals in late-medieval and early-modern Europe was uncovered in Norman Cohn's seminal study The Pursuit of the Millennium, first published in 1957. Cohn identified important similarities between these pre-modern movements and modern movements such as Communism. Both subscribed to millenarian beliefs, anticipating a violent rupture in history that would be followed by a new world. Christian millenarian movements based their hopes of an end-time on biblical prophecies of the return of Jesus, who would rule over a new kingdom for a thousand years (hence the term "millenarianism"); modern revolutionary movements founded their hopes on such pseudosciences as dialectical materialism. The end-time of medieval millenarians became the end of history for Marx, just as the postapocalyptic paradise of Christian myth became the Communist heaven on earth. Communist revolutionaries may have rejected Christian beliefs, but they renewed a view of history that is unmistakably Christian. Historical teleology - the idea that history tends toward a single end or consummation - is an inheritance from Christian notions of providence. This is true whether or not "the end of history" is understood in religious terms. Ironically, the modern belief that the terminus of historical development will be a universal secular civilization could have arisen only in a culture shaped by a particular kind of religion.

Despite their pretensions to science, theories of secularization are not empirical hypotheses. They are articles of faith, adopting the language of social science in order to renew the concepts and values of Western religion. Religious belief has been rejected, but not a religious way of thinking. As Olivier Roy has written in Secularism Confronts Islam, "It is difficult to understand the strength and success of Communist movements in western Europe without seeing in them the ghosts of a thoroughly Christian eschatology and church". Eschatology deals with last things, and the Christian idea that history has an end point reappears not only in Marx but also in treatises by neo-conservatives such as Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man announced that history had ended with the triumph of global democratic capitalism. Roy, the French author of Globalized Islam (2004), the most comprehensive and rigorous study of the subject to date, does not view secularization as an inevitable process, though he points out that it occurs in cultures shaped by many religions, including Islam. He is clear that secularization and secularism (in French, the latter is called laicite) are "two concepts that are not synonymous":

Secularization is a social phenomenon that requires no political implementation: it comes about when religion ceases to be at the center of human life, even though people still consider themselves believers; the everyday practices of people, like the meaning they give to the world, are no longer constructed under the aegis of transcendence and religion ... Laicite, on the contrary, is explicit: it is a political choice that defines the place of religion in an authoritarian, legal manner.

Roy notes that secular regimes come in several forms. The American model, in which a constitutional wall separates church and state, is not the only form of secularism, nor is it necessarily the most successful. Turkey - the secular state established by Kemal Ataturk in 1923, which despite the growing challenge of Islamist movements continues to exist to this day - controls religion through a government department of religious affairs. The example of Turkey undermines the view that Muslim countries have failed to produce a convincing example of secularism. Indeed, one might argue that Turkey is a more successful secular regime than the United States: Turkey has a long-established secular political tradition, whereas nothing comparable exists in America. America may have separated church and state, but - as the incessant flaunting of Christian credentials by both parties demonstrates - it has yet to produce a secular brand of politics.

France provides another model of secularist efforts. Laicite has always been associated with a political tradition of anticlericalism, which not only demands the separation of church and state but also seeks to reduce the power of religion in society as a whole. In the past, the principal target of laicite was the Roman Catholic Church, whose influence the French secular state tried to restrict by every means at its disposal - including a state school system from which the Church was rigorously excluded. Today the chief target of laicite is Islam, and the conflict has shifted to such issues as the wearing of the hijab by schoolgirls. Roy argues that Islam is perceived in France as a threat to national identity: "At bottom, the growth of Islam is intuitively seen as part of the process of globalization and deterritorialization ... The response is thus a demand for the nationalization of Islam, or else its secularization". Drawing on the analysis developed in his book Globalized Islam, Roy rejects the notion that the revival of Islam under way in many countries involves a return to the past. Islamism is a modern political movement that has developed alongside an advancing globalization; it looks to the future rather than the past. Those who turn to fundamentalist versions of Islam do so not from nostalgia for traditional cultures but in order to establish a universal community: "Among the born-again and the converts (numerous young women who want to wear the veil belong to these categories), Islam is seen not as a cultural relic but as a religion that is universal and global". Some Islamists may talk of reestablishing a caliphate of the sort that existed centuries ago, but for them the caliphate "is embodied in fact by [a vanguard] party ..., not by an individual: this conception of the party as a political actor in itself is a legacy of Marxism". In this and in other respects Islamism has more in common with modern revolutionary movements, such as Leninism, than with medieval Islam.

Here Roy provides a useful corrective to the interpretation of Islamism that sees it as a type of "Islamofascism". There are some features common to Islamism and Nazism, not least a shared anti-Semitism, but Islamists also share much with the French Jacobins - not only their belief in the purifying power of terror but also their illiberal conception of democracy as the expression of an infallible, semi-divine popular will. Above all, Islamism derives a great deal from the Bolsheviks, whose concept of a vanguard party it has adopted. Indeed, despite the fashion for comparing it with political movements of the far right, Islamism could more accurately be described as "Islamo-Leninism". If Leninism is a secular movement that denies its origins in religion, Islamism is an avowedly religious movement that suppresses its debts to secular thinking; eschatological thinking is equally central to both.

Contrary to secularist assumptions, it is questionable whether Western political thought has ever decoupled itself from religion. And the most systematic attempt at such a decoupling was made, in fact, not by Communists and other radical ideologues but by an early-modern realist thinker. In The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla asserts that the separation of religion and politics began in the seventeenth century, when Thomas Hobbes argued that faith should be viewed as a human need rather than a divine gift. Although Hobbes is best known for his portrayal of human life in a state of nature - which he saw as a universal competition for power in which fear of violent death is the dominant force - Lilla maintains that Hobbes's true genius is shown in his understanding of the innate religiosity of human beings. Hobbes was "the first thinker to suggest that religious conflict and political conflict are essentially the same conflict, that they grow up together because they share identical roots in human nature". God was a phantom created by individuals rather than a transcendent reality; when people believe they are obeying this phantom, they are only being ruled by their own fears.

Understanding religion in this way, Hobbes was an early Enlightenment thinker; unlike later thinkers in this tradition, however, he never imagined that fear - or religion - could be expunged from human life. Humans would continue to be fearful, but they would fear an all-powerful sovereign, one who would deliver them from the war of all against all that would have ruled them in the state of nature. Religion should and would be practiced under the watchful eye of the state. As Lilla writes: "The sovereign would have a total monopoly over ecclesiastical matters, including prophecy, miracles, and the interpretation of scripture. He would also declare that the only requirement for salvation was complete obedience to himself."

In the course of a wide-ranging discussion that encompasses not only the history of Christianity but also some major contributions by Jewish thinkers, Lilla writes that it was Hobbes who first made the "Great Separation" between religion and politics, between theology and the secular art of government. More consistently than any other modern thinker, Hobbes subordinated, the claims of faith to the requirements of peace. Although he never doubted that humankind is incorrigibly religious, he was, in effect, the supreme theorist of secularism. Lilla argues - rightly - that Hobbes was one of the philosophers who produced the shift toward a secular world. But just like other secularists, Hobbes owed a hidden debt to Christianity, rendering him quite different from such pre-Christian thinkers as the Epicureans, by whom he was in other ways inspired. Epicurus and Lucretius viewed humans as an integral part of the natural order; they couldn't have imagined any human institution delivering humankind from recurrent periods of anarchy. In believing that an all-powerful sovereign could bring a kind of salvation to humankind, Hobbes was moved by Christian hopes, and, despite his efforts, the "Great Separation" was not achieved.

Toward the end of The Stillborn God, Lilla discusses the idea of modernity that has figured so prominently in recent European thought. He suggests that European thinkers have spoken of the "modern age" in "quasi-eschatological language, describing it as a rip in time that opened an unprecedented and irreversible epoch in human experience, with a unique logic, language, and mindset". Lilla is right to criticize the belief that a radical shift in human thought occurred with the arrival of the modern period. Yet it is a belief to which he himself seems to subscribe, in a chastened form, when he writes: "Those of us who have accepted the heritage of the Great Separation must do so modestly. Time and again we must remind ourselves that we are living an experiment, that we are the exceptions. We have little reason to expect other civilizations to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique theological-political crisis within Christendom." But are "we" so exceptional? Has the proper place of religion in politics been resolved in the United States, where politicians can be safely agnostic about Darwinism but not about religion? The Great Separation is no more a reality in contemporary America than it is in any other modern democracy.

For the most part, Lilla understands that religion is not banished by being denied. The secular ideologies of the past two centuries, which have assumed religion was the by-product of ignorance, were themselves by-products of Western religion. Today these ideologies are in decline, and the resurgence of religion is the result. Religion never went away but only changed its shape; the rupture in history that so many modern thinkers expected has not occurred. Despite the advance of science, humankind remains incurably religious, and the place of religion in society continues to be intractably contested. The belief that we are moving into a secular age looks ever more like an unwitting tribute to the perennial power of faith.

John Gray is the author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

Bill Totten


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