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The Political Future of Religion and Secularism

Par Craig Calhoun
Publié par Clifford Armion le 08/02/2013

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"Secularism has long been seen as a solution to problems of religion. Yet today, secularism (laïcité) itself is a political problem alongside religion. In some versions, secularism has become an obstacle to political and social projects potentially shared among members of different religions and the non-religious."

all rights reservedCraig Calhoun (born 1952) is an American sociologist and an advocate of using social science to address issues of public concern. He became Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science in September 2012. He was president of the Social Science Research Council, University Professor of the Social Sciences at New York University and Director of NYU's Institute for Public Knowledge. With Richard Sennett he co-founded NYLON, an interdisciplinary working seminar for graduate students in New York and London who bring ethnographic and historical research to bear on politics, culture, and society.


Secularism has long been seen as a solution to problems of religion. Yet today, secularism (laïcité) itself is a political problem alongside religion.

In some versions, secularism has become an obstacle to political and social projects potentially shared among members of different religions and the non-religious. It has been politicized in relation to migration, insurgency, and religious renewal. As ideology, it is sometimes the basis for new forms of intolerance. Both secularism and religion are sometimes made the bases for prescriptive demands on others as well as self-understandings. A central issue is the transformation of secularism and laïcité – in some versions – from formulations focused on freedom to ideologies mobilized to impose cultural values. Yet this need not be so. The problems are not with religion and secularism as such, but with how “fundamentalist” versions of each are deployed.

The religious problems to which secularism is proposed as a solution appear mainly in two forms: conflict among people (or states) of diverse religious faiths, and contested claims to religious authority. The distinction informs the differnce between the French term laïcité and the English term secularism – though in general “secularism” is a broader term encompassing laïcité along with other meanings.

The tacit understanding of citizenship in the modern West has been secular. This is so despite the existence of state churches, presidents who pray, and a profound role for religious motivations in major public movements. The specifics of political secularism vary from case to case – separation of church and state in America, fairness in allocation of public support to different religious groups in India, laïcité and the exclusion of religious expression from even nonpolitical public life in France and at least at one time in Turkey.

Laïcité reflects the history of countries that have had strong, dominant religions and close relations between political and religious power. The term is used almost exclusively to refer to matters of citizenship within states. This usage is distinctively informed by anti-clerical struggles and by resistance to religious authority in public affairs. Initially defining a realm from which the power of priests and the church hierarchy must be excluded it has come also to suggest the exclusion of religion itself from the public sphere.

Conflicts today arise not only with regard to public funding of religion but with the question of whether religious arguments have a legitimate place in public debates – or, indeed, religious symbols in public places. Participation in the political public sphere is a central dimension of citizenship, so restrictions on public debate are significant. Many liberals think restrictions on religious argumentation unproblematic, however, not only because of long habit but because they approach the public sphere with an understanding of rationality which seems to exclude religious arguments as irrational. The issue here is not simply whether any specific beliefs are true or false, but whether they are subject to correction and improvement through rational arguments appealing to logic and evidence in principle sharable by all participants. Arguments based on faith or divine inspiration are held not to qualify.

Yet in arguing against religion a number of advocates for reason fall back on unfortunately simplistic – indeed fundamentalist – accounts of reason. They imagine reason as somehow more complete in itself than it possibly can be. Such accounts are both untenable and an obstacle to greater reconciliation and common understanding among citizens. The argument about reason is overdetermined, however, by the tacit identification of secularism with enlightenment and modernization and religion with mere tradition and backwardness. Moreover, many ally secularist principles to nationalism, sometimes claiming it as a kind of collective achievement of national maturation.

This shapes the astonishment of Europeans at American politics with its public professions of faith and demonstrations of piety. Though American liberals are not astonished, many are embarrassed or anxious, indeed alienated from large parts of American public life (and skewed in their understanding because they seldom participate in discussions where religion is taken seriously). Europeans also have been surprised by the enduring prominence of Catholicism, and startled by Polish proposals to include recognition of God and Christianity in the European basic law and by the fact that these were not without resonance elsewhere.

At the same time, restrictive conceptions of legitimate participation in the public sphere also shape European difficulties incorporating Muslim citizens. It is disturbing to many not simply that their religion is unfamiliar – though this is certainly a factor, or that it is associated at least in public understanding with terrorism, but that many are so actively religious. Secularists propose a limit on religion in the public sphere, which they take to be a basis for equal inclusion, but at the same time insulate themselves from understanding religious discourse, practicing an ironic exclusion. Yet, as implemented, such thinking often transforms secularism from an advocacy of freedom to a new imposition of unfreedom.

Secularism has a much broader range of meanings than laïcité, but one root is particularly important. Since earliest Christianity, the secular was the realm of earthly affairs, of ordinary life, of temporality and mortality rather than spiritual matters focused on eternity. Religious belief was not irrelevant to secular affairs; it could inform morality exercised in earthly relationships. There were priests with secular vocations as well as monks withdrawing from much of secular life to pursue purely religious vocations. This distinction allowed Augustine to distinguish the City of God from the City of Man. Building on the notion of rendering to Caesar that which was Caesar’s it allowed later thinkers to argue for the autonomy of secular, earthly powers from the hierarchy of Church. And it informed the classic articulation of the Peace of Westphalia.

In 1648, European powers ended the Thirty Years War with the double declarations that issues between states would be resolved without reference to religion while within states, cuis regio, eius religio (whose rules, his religion). This legitimated confessional states even while the same treaties affirmed a principle of secularism in international affairs. Religion would be considered a “domestic” matter, not a legitimate basis for international intervention.

While in some countries the pursuit of religious conformity remained strong, eventually inviting laic responses, in others religious diversity was increasingly accepted. In these latter countries, secularism took on reference to matters beyond the control of any one religion and efforts to facilitate shared government and public engagement among religiously active citizens of different faiths. When the American colonies formed the United States, for example, they brought a collection of different state-supported religions – albeit all Christian – into a common political framework. Having no established religion was a way of allowing all to thrive and avoid struggle over the dominance of any one. Or again, in India the principle of a secular state affirms not irreligion but equality among religions – and the Indian state provides financial subsidies to multiple religions.

The Westphalian distinction between the domestic and the international informed a growing treatment of religion as private by contrast to the public character of matters of state. The idea of a public sphere grew with the notion that in civil society there should be a potential for debate, including debate about affairs of state, that transcended differences of private identity or private power – including religious power. Religion has repeatedly informed discussion in the public sphere and social movements to shape shared futures and institutions. But because of this public/private dichotomy, there have been recurrent efforts to relegate religion to a private realm, and to exclude religious arguments from public debates. These often rely on further arguments and incommensurable notions of truth.

To this account of secularism and the state we need to add another dimension. This is the entwining of institutional arrangements and political ideologies with the expectation that religion would fade away in a modern era. This is a product of the strong identification of modernity with the advance of reason, especially in the 18th century. Here too there are national differences. The key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment included both atheists (or at least one) and ministers, but focused not on ending religion but on curbing religious enthusiasm – that is, the exercise of emotional religion guided by a strong sense of personal revelation and absolute certainty on that basis. Immanuel Kant sought a restructuring of religion within the limits of reason alone. And the phrase famously attributed to Denis Diderot is particularly French: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”.

Secularism is not at all the same thing as atheism, but arguments over secularism and religion to this day seldom escape the contrasting accusations of spreading unbelief, or condoning irrational credulity. It is not obvious that exercise of reason is the primary source of unbelief – reason having been exercised impressively within religious frameworks for millennia. Science may have had a more specifically corrosive effect. But interestingly, the evidence is that religion has not faded away, even while explicit unbelief has grown considerably. Religion has lost some of its comprehensive grip over ways of life, at least in many contexts; it is increasingly compartmentalized and secular modes of reason and organization are powerful even in the lives of religious people. Yet we should be cautious about assuming that in past ages religion gripped most people in more than perfunctory ways. Even more we should be cautious about imagining that active profession of belief was a common practice. In any case, today there are many and diverse kinds of religious faith and feeling, some strictly orthodox, others remarkably heterodox, and still more syncretistic amalgams of values, spiritual inclinations and devotional practices. Religion has not disappeared from the world’s most “modern” societies. On the contrary it seems to be undergoing renewal in some, and also importantly in many rapidly developing societies. And this happens at the same time that atheism appears both in the strident advocacy of the “new atheists” and in the relative indifference of a rather larger number of less vocal people.

There is, however, a curious commonality between fundamentalist religion and atheism. Both rely on commitments to relatively simple ideas of clear and certain truth. And both rely on a notion of belief as the central defining characteristic of religion – and knowledge. This leaves out much of the work religion does in people’s lives and the ways in which it remains alive and active. Religion is ritual as well as belief, congregations of the faithful as well as hierarchies of authority, tasks as well as texts. It is music and the musical language of sacred texts and styles of reading and recitation. It is ethical norms and moral values. It is the language in which quarrels are resolved as well as the differences of belief or practice that start them. It is a source of hope, and a medium for recognition of both personal finitude and connection to the infinite.

And of course as we enunciate this list of ways in which religion matters to people beyond simple adherence to beliefs, we recognize that people with no religion also depend on faith (albeit not necessarily in God), on shared experience of music and ritual, on moral values and ideals (more than a few of which derive from religious traditions), and on senses of solidarity and interdependence. Secular ways of living together depend on institutions with pasts and on work undertaking to shape shared futures.

A simplistic belief-centered view of knowledge is problematic well beyond religion. It inhibits understanding how culture works and relates to both personal knowledge and public discourse. It leaves practical knowledge entirely out of the picture. As hunting is not those heads on the wall, knowing is not simply a matter of propositions regarded as true – and still less propositions regarded as true by scientists on the basis of explicit reasoning and analysis of evidence.

People do not “know” simply in constative statements. As a human activity, knowing is informed by experience and visual images, language and categories of thought, affect as well as intellect. I do not mean to suggest that we should regard logic and evidence as epistemically equivalent to tradition or emotion. Rather, I would argue that by setting up an unrealistic epistemic ideal – and arguing about issues like religion in terms of that ideal – we reduce the extent to which knowledge based on science, on philosophy, on research is able to inform effectively the range of human knowledge in practice.

Doctrinaire, belief-centered, approaches to truth as a set of either-or propositions make both fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist unbelief obstacles to constructive dialog and the capacity of people with different faiths and understandings to work together on issues of common concern. Much more important than explicit atheism is simple growth in the power of secular institutions. These include science, medicine, government, and markets insofar as each are understood to operate according to this-worldly operations of cause and effect. Religious engagements in these institutions do not preclude secular engagements – as religious businessmen may pray for profits but also invest with this-worldly prudence and calculations of risk.

With this in mind, we can see the importance of approaching secularism and religion through the common ground of work – human action with conscious intentions – focused on improving life in this world. Motivations and understanding will be different – among people of different religious faiths and people with none. But collaboration will be greatly aided by starting with an emphasis on shared work rather than the pursuit of uniform belief.

It is important today not to conceive citizenship or the bases for cooperation as requiring uniformity of belief, or culture, or even normative ideals. There is simply too much difference in the world and in almost every society for that to be anything other than a project of domination. But this doesn’t mean simply celebrating difference. It demands shared engagements in efforts to make societies and the world better. This would be secularism, but in a good sense – action focused on the secular, temporal world. I don’t imagine the word “secularism” can be saved from unfortunate associations to be used only with this reference, but thinking in this way can highlight and help to overcome some of the ways in which secularism has itself become a problem and not a solution.

Unreflective secularism distorts much liberal understanding of the world – encouraging, for example, thinking about global civil society that greatly underestimates the role of religious organizations, or imagining cosmopolitanism as a sort of escape from culture into a realm of reason where religion is of little influence. It is a mistake to approach secularism as the mere absence of religion; it is important to recognize that it is often a much more substantive ideology. And understandings bundled into such secularist ideology make some approaches to citizenship paradoxically repressive and disempowering.

At the same time, religious faith is widely mobilized as a form of resistance to prevailing political, economic and cultural power or mobilization for new projects of power. Religion can be a source for progressive and liberating change, or for repression. But in the current context a particular issue is the extent to which religion has become a dominant framework for identity claims – including political as well as personal identity.

The main issue was once religious diversity. Faith – indeed, confessionally organized faith - was assumed, but conflicts of faith undermined political cohesion. Some governments sought national cohesion through imposing religious conformity, others by accepting diversity but limiting the public role of religion. Today the issue is often faith itself, and whether or how to recognize it in public affairs. Secularism needs to be rethought as an aid to doing so rather than an obstacle.

Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la première saison du festival "Mode d'emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est déroulé en novembre et décembre 2012.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Craig Calhoun, "The Political Future of Religion and Secularism", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2013. Consulté le 21/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/the-political-future-of-religion-and-secularism

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