Secularism is not inevitable or desirable

November 13, 2004
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 13th November 2004

Religion persists at the centre of world concerns. Sunni and Shia battle in Iraq. Religious divisions fuel ethnic conflict from Chechnya to China, Thailand to Turkey. The European Parliament was recently riven over the proposal to appoint Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian who holds orthodox Catholic views on homosexuality.

We have witnessed an American presidential election in which, according to the polls, moral issues — “Christian values” — were at the top of voters’ concerns, outweighing the economy, terror and the war in Iraq. All this is hard for a European, particularly a North European, to understand.

The reason is that we are heirs to a highly singular history whose origins lie in more than a century of religious warfare between the Reformation in 1517 and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The memory of those days drove the intellectual and political history of Europe for more than 300 years, leading to the rise of science, the nation state, the growing independence of universities, the de-sacralisation of culture and the retreat of religion from its former citadels of power.

We forget that secularisation did not take place because people stopped believing in God. That, if anything, was a consequence, not a cause. It happened because men and women of goodwill lost faith in the ability of religious believers to live peaceably with one another. With Catholics and Protestants fighting each other across Europe, people began to search for another way. Could we, they asked, find a path of pursuing knowledge, or wealth, or power, while leaving our religious convictions at home? Thus began what Matthew Arnold called the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the retreating sea of faith.

The advance guard of the Enlightenment believed that where Europe led, the rest of the world would follow. Secularisation, they believed, was inevitable and inexorable. It would be the fate of every civilisation that attempted to come to terms with modernity. In this they were simply wrong.

The United States, for example, chose an entirely different route — the Jeffersonian First Amendment, with its separation of Church and State. The result, as the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville saw as early as 1830, was that what religion lost in power, it gained in influence. It moved from state to society, from Congress to congregation, and from national to local affairs, where it exercised immense sway. The effect of denationalising the Church was to open up religious denominations to the bracing winds of competition, generating wave after wave of revivalism. The American paradox is that secular politics coexists with religious passion.

In other parts of the world there has been a third trajectory, in which religion has emerged as a mass protest against failed secular nationalisms of the kind that Nasser introduced into Egypt and Saddam Hussein into Iraq. Here religion functions as a critique of modernity: mass poverty, widespread unemployment, political corruption and human rights abuse. In such environments, religion alone seems to speak the language of human dignity and hope, and until we understand this we will utterly fail to comprehend the strength of reaction against regimes that sought to imitate the West.

Religion didn’t die. It persists as humanity’s oldest, noblest attempt to endow human life with meaning. Secularisation turned out to be the exception, not the rule. This leaves us painfully ill-equipped to come to terms with some of the most intractable conflicts of the 21st century.

Nothing is served by crude caricatures: the secular view of religion as irretrievably fanatical, or the religious view of secular culture as irredeemably decadent and effete. The real question for all of us is whether we can make space for difference, for the one who is not like us.

This has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of religion. The question has nothing to do with God, and everything to do with us.