Some Disjointed Thoughts on Democracy, Plato, and the Christian Roots of Liberalism

Yesterday I was inspired by someone dear to me to write out these thoughts. In a rather uncomfortable disagreement, this person, after I had complained about the direction society was moving (a common aghast of the postgraduate), they simply retorted, “that’s democracy.” My first impulse was to aggressively and disdainfully disagree. But I knew this person had a healthy, I think, ambiguity about their beliefs, in regards to society, politics, and even religion.  So I held my tongue. But the more I thought about this brief, impromptu, and somewhat trite conversation, the more I felt obliged to give it greater scrutiny.

Do we, in fact, live in a democracy? A related question, and perhaps more important, is whether democracy happens to be the best form of government? My interlocutor had made, at least in my mind, some uncomfortable assumptions.

This is the stuff of Philosophy 101. My immediate thoughts, upon reflection (and during a sleepless night), turned to Plato and his Republic. Plato, most of us fondly remember, had proposed that there were at least five forms of government: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Now, it seems clear to me that we most certainly do not live in a democracy. Rather, our system of government, and what seems to me what most nations aspire to, wittingly or unwittingly, is a “multarchy”—a term coined by University of Notre Dame professor of philosophy Gary Gutting. And as Gutting himself put it in an article he published for the New York Times in 2011, America is a “complex interweaving of many forms of government.” That seems to me to be right. Emphatically, then, we do not and never have lived in a pure democracy. In fact, not only does this seem impossible, it also seems undesirable.

According Gutting, our bureaucracy corresponds to Plato’s aristocracy, our military to timocracy, the oligarchy to the super wealthy, and so on. In other words, America’s form of government, in some very particular and peculiar ways, corresponds to all five forms of Plato’s list. What Gutting leaves out in his analysis, however, is that Plato listed these five forms of government in his dialogue in descending order. Thus democracy is just shy of tyranny, and is ultimately a mob-like beast. According to Plato, it is only in an aristocracy, led by the unwilling philosopher-king (a constant theme, I was reminded the other day, in C.L. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, which recently aired on Australian television) that comprises the best form of government. Do we really need any reminders that so-called “democracy” has led to all kinds of atrocities?

But of course other systems of government have as well. But here I am reminded particularly by one of the Founding Fathers of American independence. In a long letter to John Taylor (1753-1824), John Adams (1735-1826) wrote:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.

But suppose for a moment we do indeed live in a democracy, and that such a form of government is just—then it seems to me that we have to assume that people in general are good, and, in turn, that they make good decisions. That seems to me to be utterly false. We are a broken people. Angry, greedy and self-centered, ugly and spiteful, our politicians and polity alike constantly make poor decisions. Thus it seems that any idea of a successful democracy was built on the dream of a morally upright society, or, at least, on the idea of a morally upright governing body.

This has finally led me, curiously enough, to Samuel Moyn’s recent articles on Christianity and liberalism on the Immanent Frame. I have mentioned Moyn in another context, in his biting critique of Jonathan Israel’s radical Enlightenment project. But here, and in several other recent works, Moyn has taken up the task of tracing the origins of modern day conceptions of “human rights.” In an earlier post, Moyn argued that

…the original context of the European embrace of human rights—in which they were linked to the conservative defense of human dignity and attached to the figure of the human person—was in Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent…The ‘death of Christian Europe,’ as one might call it, forced…a complete reinvention of the meaning of the human rights embedded in European identity both formally and really since the war. The only serious thread of persistence was, ironically, in Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, not coincidentally the main exception of Christian collapse…[in time, however,] Human rights had become a secular doctrine of the left; how that happened is another story.

More recently, Moyn argues that such notions as “human dignity” and “human rights” can be traced to Pope Pius XII in his Christmas Message of 1942. Pius XII’s “Five Points for Ordering Society” begins thus:

1. Dignity of the Human Person. He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate, for his part, in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning; should oppose the excessive herding of men, as if they were a mass without a soul; their economic, social, political, intellectual and moral inconsistency; their dearth of solid principles and strong convictions, their surfeit of instinctive sensible excitement and their fickleness.

He should favor, by every lawful means, in every sphere of life, social institutions in which a full personal responsibility is assured and guaranteed both in the early and the eternal order of things. He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of the following fundamental personal rights; the right to maintain and develop one’s corporal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation and education; the right to worship God in private and public and to carry on religious works of charity; the right to marry and to achieve the aim of married life; the right to conjugal and domestic society; the right to work, as the indispensable means towards the maintenance of family life; the right to free choice of state of life, and hence, too, of the priesthood or religious life; the right to the use of material goods; in keeping with his duties and social limitations.

According to Moyn, this formulation (or, perhaps, reformulation) of human rights and dignity was novel for the time. And although he does admit that others have claimed the fundamental Christian origins of human rights (here, e.g., he cites John Witte, Jr. and Nicholas Wolsterstorff), his concern is the “novel communion between Christianity and human rights, on the 1940s and shortly before.”

That’s all well and good. Moyn is certainly entitled to his delimitation. But what struck me most this morning, upon reading Moyn’s piece, was his supposedly radical claim that “without Christianity, our commitment to the moral equality of human beings is unlikely to have come about…”

To be sure, Moyn’s outlook, as far as I can tell, is entirely secular, in the sense that he is not offering some Christian apologia. Rather, he is simply trying to get the history right. Here his mention of John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (2008) is particularly interesting. Witte argues that “Calvin and his followers developed a distinct theology and jurisprudence of human rights and gradually cast these rights teachings into enduring institutional and constitutional forms in early modern Europe and America.” This is essentially a counterargument against those who still claim that “human rights” was an offspring of Enlightenment thought (à la mode de Jonathan Israel). This argument is not entirely new. W. Stanford Reid back in 1986 published a short article in Christian History arguing that the Genevan reformer “not only set forth ideas which exercised a powerful influence for democracy in his own day, but also that his ideas had a broad influence on subsequent political thinking in the western world. Although the theological connection which he made between politics and Christianity has largely disappeared, he can still be regarded as one of the fathers of modern democracy.”

This emphasis on modern politics in continuity with traditional Christian ideas, and Calvinism in particular, is also seen in other areas of scholarship. Some have argued, for example, that Reformation theology played a particularly important role in the development of modern science. R. Hooykaas’ Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972), of course, is an oft-cited example. More recent work by Susan Schreiner in The Theater of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (1991), Peter Harrison in The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), Kenneth J. Howell in God’s Two Books: Copernican and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (2002), L.S. Koetsier in Natural Law and Calvinist Political Theory (2003), and most recently Jason Foster in his essay, “The Ecology of John Calvin,” published in Reformed Perspectives Magazine (2005), also attest to this trend. Even a completely “secular” (or, at least, thought to be completely secular) and obscure concept like “transhumanism” turns out to have roots in the Apostle Paul (!), as Peter Harrison and Joseph Wolyniak have recently pointed out in the latest issue of Notes and Queries.

So where does that leave me? The idea of a pure democracy is, of course, an illusion. It is rooted, like most of our modern concepts, on particularly theological ideas. Plato had rejected democracy because he saw the masses as credulous and uninformed, subject to their emotions and generally blind to critical thought. In short, the masses cannot govern themselves. John Adams seems to have had a little more hope, but not much more. Democracy always ends up committing suicide. His hope, however, if Moyn, Witte, Reid, and others are correct, was rooted in a Christian theology (Calvinist or Thomist, depending on who you ask) of human dignity and rights.

Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Secularism of George Jacob Holyoake

Wrapping up a series of essays I have been reading from The British Journal for the History of Science, I now come to two interrelated and complimentary essays by Ciaran Toal, “Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science: Sermons, Secularization and the Rhetoric of Conflict in the 1870s” (2012), and Michael Rectenwald, “Secularism and the Cultures of Nineteenth-century Scientific Naturalism” (2013).

Toal argues that there was a “vast homiletic literature preached during the British Association meetings throughout the nineteenth century, ” despite Reverend Vernon Harcourt’s—one of the founders of the BAAS—dedication to neutrality and admonition against any discussion of religion and politics. As Toal writes in another context (see his “Science, Religion, and the Geography of Speech at the British Association: William Henry Dallinger (1839-1909) Under the Microscope” [2013]), “concerned that the BAAS would become embroiled in theological disputes, and distracted from its mission of bringing science to the provinces, [Harcourt], along with the rest of the leadership, founded the Association as a ‘neutral’ body.”

However, the Sunday of the BAAS meeting, and the sermons preached on that day, constitutes an indelible part of its history. Toal’s essay “focuses on the range of sermons preached in connection with the British Association meetings in the 1870s,” and particular “attention is given to the differing views on the relationship between science and religion in the homiletic record, and the rhetoric of ‘science-religion conflict’ following John Tyndall’s 1874 ‘Belfast Address.'”

In an age often described as the “golden age of preaching,” sermons played an important role in the social and religious life of the Victorian. “Thomas Henry Huxley,” for example, “recognized the cultural power of the sermon, naming his own collection of essays, addresses and reviews ‘Lay Sermons.'”

The religious geography of nineteenth-century Britain often dictated what was preached during the British Association meeting. Although multifarious in style, content, proclamation, and instruction, the most important function of any sermon was the imparting of religious truth. In other words, sermons were didactic, especially those preached at the BAAS.

Sermons preached at the BAAS were responsive to the expectations and sensibilities of its audience. They were not your normal Sunday service, as Toal points out, for the preachers who preached on a Sunday of the BAAS “were aware that their discourses would be widely published and digested.”

Thus lines were often blurred between official BAAS business and associated religious activity. Broadly, sermons were either preached in the week preceding, the week during, or the week immediately following the visit of the BAAS to a host town or city, and directly addressing the prominent scientific issues under discussion.

Turning to the content of sermons and the varying views on the relationship between science and religion in them, Toal reiterates John Hedley Brooke’s warning that discussing science and religion in essentialist terms often obfuscate understanding by importing anachronistic boundaries. But he also argues that “many of the preachers did discuss science and religion in discrete terms, before commenting on how they were or were not related.” For example, a 1870 sermon by Rev. Abraham Hume preached the Connexion between Science and Religion: A Sermon Preached at Christ Church Kensington, Liverpool, 18th Septemberduring the Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Hume quoted from Psalm 100.24, 25 “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches. So is the great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable.” He used the passage to argue that God’s works in nature and God’s word in Scripture both reveal him and our allies. Even more explicit, Anglican Charles Coombe, in 1879, preached a sermon entitled ‘Sirs, Ye are Brethren;’ or Science and Religion at One: Sermon Preached in St. Paul’s Church, Sheffield, on the Occasion of the Meeting of the British Association, August 24th, where he argued against antagonism between science religion, and that both should stop “maligning, fighting and devouring” each other.

In general, according to Toal, three positions in the relationship between science and religion dominate the sermons preached throughout the 1870s. First, the relationship between science religion was underpinned by the idea that they were essentially separate entities. This is usually the position taken by liberal Anglicans and the Unitarians, who were more open to “speculative science.” Other Unitarians, such as itinerant preacher Charles Wicksteed, wanted to separate science and religion into spheres of physical and spiritual knowledge, “as they were different modes of God’s voices, and [thus] should not be judged against each other.” But a number of preachers also maintained that science and religion were integrated as inextricably linked forms of knowledge. Those who took this position often preached that science and its conclusions had to be limited by religion: “relation is crucial, as it could provide a fuller interpretation of nature and, more importantly, offer salvation for nature could not.” Those who took up this position often expressed the views that physical and experimental science, and especially the theories of Darwin, sought to destroy religion. They were also the fiercest critics of Tyndall.

With these “positional readings” in mind, Toal turns specifically to the conflict rhetoric before and after Tyndall’s Belfast Address in 1874. According to Toal, before Tyndall’s attack, preachers explained any science-religion antagonism as a result of either human error, inept theology, over eagerness, a lack of full knowledge of both science and religion, or inattention to the “varieties of God’s voices.” After the Belfast Address, the tone of sermons changes, and, importantly, preachers began leveling “accusation for promoting science-religion conflict at a distinct group, or groups, particularly the scientific naturalists.”

But these accusations had little effect on the reputation of the BAAS. According to Toal, throughout the sermon record in the 1870s, in the context of hostility to religion, the BAAS was without exception received favorably; that is, little criticism is ever directed at the BAAS as a body. This demonstrates, according to Toal, that preachers deliberately differentiated between the BAAS and the antagonistic statements of some of its members. This shows that the responsibility for propagating antagonistic science-religion is rhetoric was identified with a particular group, often labeled as “dogmatic scientists,” “materialists,” “atheists,” or “unbelievers,”and not with the BAAS as a whole. In short, the BAAS was seen, broadly, as an institution favorable to religion and religious groups.

Toal concludes his essay with a note on how “the explanatory power of a ‘secularization thesis’ is diminished in the context of the vast number of Sunday sermons preached at the [BAAS].” “Victorian culture,” he adds, “was arguably no less religious in 1870s than it had been before…[and], similarly, many Victorian scientists were no less religious.”

George Jacob HolyoakeRectenwald’s essay nicely compliments Toal’s, in which he argues that in the mid-1840s, a philosophical, social and political movement named Secularism evolved from the radical tradition of Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen and the radical periodical press. George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) founded and named Secularism at mid-century, and it was this Secularism that acted as a “significant source for the emerging new creed of scientific naturalism in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Rectenwald writes, “Secularism drew from the social base of artisan intellectuals who came of age in the era of self-improvement; the diffusion of knowledge; and agitation for social, political and economic reform—but it also enrolled the support of middle-class radicals.” Holyoake developed secularism as a creed with a naturalistic epistemology, morality, and politics; its principle as an ontological demarcation stratagem, “dividing the metaphysical, spiritual or eternal from ‘this life’—the material, the worldly or the temporal.” But Holyoake’s secularism did not require atheism as a prerequisite; “secularism represented ‘unknowingness without denial.” As Rectenwald puts it, “one’s beliefs in the supernatural were a matter of speculation or opinion to which one was entitled, unless such beliefs precluded positive knowledge or action.” And unlike Charles Bradlaugh’s (1833-1891) politically active atheism, Holyoake’s secularism was not aimed at “abolishing religious ideology from law, education and government.” In short, “secularism represented the necessary conciliation with respectable middle-class unbelief and liberal theology that would allow for an association with the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall and Spencer,” and as such it was “constitutive of the cultural and intellectual environment necessary for the promotion and relative success of scientific naturalism beginning in the 1850s.”

There was indeed a “circuit of exchanges” between Holyoake and the scientific naturalists, suggesting that secularism was important to scientific naturalism from the outset. Rectenwald gives us fascinating overview of secularism in the periodicals, pamphlets, and other publications with which Holyoake was associated with in the mid-century. Freethought periodicals such as Oracle of Reason—with its epigraph on the front of every issue, “Faith’s empire is the World, its monarch God, its minister the priests, its slaves the people”—Movement and Anti-persecution Gazette, The Investigator, and the Free Thinkers’ Information for the People were founded in the 1840s and “began as working-class productions aimed at working-class readers.” The Oracle of Reason proudly boasted that it was “the only exclusively atheistical print that has appeared in any age or country.”

When Holyoake took over many of these radical publications, he opened the pages to “respectable” radicals, such as Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte, forming an alliance between radical artisans and middle-class unbelievers. As many historians have shown, Lamarck’s theory of evolution was taken up by various radical political thinkers, which seemed to provide scientific underpinning for their reformist political views. Rectenwald recounts how “evolutionary ideas were marshaled to counter a static, hierarchical, theocratic social order with a vision of a transformative, ‘uprising’ nature” in the pages of the radical press, particularly under Holyoake’s editorship.

In late 1849 Holyoake joined the radical journalist Thornton Hunt’s (1810-1873) group, Confidential Combination, with the vision of enlisting “wary middle-class freethinkers into an anonymous groups where they might voice advanced opinion on ‘politics, sociology, or religion’ without fear of reprisal.” According to Rectenwald, this group “no doubt included…Herbert Spencer, W. Savage Landor, W.J. Linton, W.E. Forster, T. Ballatine and George Hooper,” all of whom contributed to the radical press. In their meetings, Holyoake regularly met with Spencer, becoming “lifelong friends, with regular correspondence continuing to 1894.”

This same circle of London writers often met at the publishing of John Chapman, the publisher of the Westminster Review, “the organ of philosophical radicalism.” The gatherings consisted of contributors George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Spencer, Harriet Martineau, Charles Bray, George Combe and Thomas Henry Huxley. It was through Martineau and Eliot that Holyoake “came to know Comte’s ideas” in the Positive Philosophy. It was also here where Holyoake began a friendship with Huxley.

In the early 1860s, Holyoake “regularly corresponded with Spencer, Huxley and Tyndall.” According to Rectenwald, “the letters covered numerous issues, including polemics against religious interlocutors, the mutual promotion of literature, the naturalists’ financial and written support for Secularism and Secularists and health, amongst other topics.” And when Huxley sought to dissociate himself from materialism and coarse atheism, his association with Holyoake’s secularism offered  a “respectable” alternative. Tyndall also once extolled Holyoake as an exemplar of secular morality. This correspondence was not merely professional, but, as Rectenwald points out, quite personal, as when each man supported, morally and financially, the other during certain illnesses.

Rectenwald demonstrates, by careful readings of a vast array of radical publications and personal correspondence, “the importance of freethought radicalism to the emergence of the powerful discourse of scientific naturalism” in the second half of the nineteenth century. Holyoake in particular “modified freethought by pruning its atheistic rhetoric, allowing freethinkers to discount the supernatural and to disavow the clergy in matter relating to knowledge and morals, without the expected bombast and negation.” Popular among an audience of sophisticated working-class and lower-middle-class readers, Holyoake’s secularism “did much to advance the world view developed and promulgated by Huxley and Tyndall.”

Unintended Consequences: Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Peter Harrison argues in his The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998) that it was only after people began reading the Bible in a different way that they began reading “God’s other book,” that is, the “Book of Nature,” in a different way, and in consequence scientific knowledge began to increase as an indirect result of this new way of reading the Bible. The new way of reading the Bible was promoted, of course, by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers. The Protestant emphasis upon rejecting intermediary authorities between oneself and God, and insisting upon a “priesthood of all believers,” meant that they encouraged the faithful to read the Bible for themselves.

The unforeseen consequence of this, Harrison argues, was that the literalist mentality of the Protestant readers led them to avoid, or even reject, assigning extra levels of meaning not only to the words of Scripture, but also to objects in the Book of Nature. Where previously flora and fauna were seen in allegorical terms and assumed to be invested with moral and spiritual meanings for the benefit of mankind, Protestant observers of nature began to look at the world for its own sake, developing in turn a more naturalistic way of seeing the world. Consequently, the new literalist approach to reading Scripture developed by Protestants played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the early modern period, and accounts for the increasing dominance of Protestants in the development of the sciences throughout the seventeenth century.

Brad Gregory - The Unintended ReformationThe historian of science, therefore, cannot avoid discussing the Reformation in accounting for the rise of modern science. “The Reformation,” Harrison argues elsewhere, “was a major factor in creating the kind of world in which a particular kind of natural philosophy could take root and flourish,” one which would eventually lead to the emergence of scientific culture in western civilization. Thus when a book like Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012) appears, the historian of science must engage it. Gregory’s Unintended Reformation is not limited to students of history of science, however. It will also interest those students of the history of Christianity, Reformation studies, philosophy and philosophical ethics, the social sciences, or anyone interested in the rise of modern western civilization. Breaking out of conventional molds, The Unintended Reformation is a hybrid work of history, philosophy, and contemporary moral and political commentary. According to Carlos Eire, Gregory brazenly challenges the guiding principles of current historiographical orthodoxy. “It was written,” says Eire, “to incite debate, and also to sway minds and hearts, but the author’s erudition and his impeccable scholarship also make it an unavoidable must-read in every early modernist’s reading list.”

Indeed, there has already been a massive response to this book, ranging from highly appreciative to rather dismissive and, as another reviewer put it, sometimes even “venomous reviews.” The journal Historically Speaking devoted a forum to it in June 2012. More recently The Immanent Frame has published several responses to the book on their website. There have been a wide range of reactions—many of them with conflicted impulses. Alexandra Walsham, for instance, praises Gregory’s book as “a persuasive and subtle analysis of many aspects of his subject,” and that his “adoption of a ‘genealogical’ method…yields many suggestive ideas and fruitful insights,” but then goes on to say that he has made “rather large logical leaps,” and that the book is “curiously reminiscent of the grand analyses produced by early members of the Annales School.” Walsham concludes that The Unintended Reformation is a “sermon, a manifesto, and a tract for our times…a piece of Christian apologetic that pits absolute truth against relativizing secular reason.”

Bruce Gordon, although he commends Gregory on writing a powerful and persuasive book,  ultimately concludes that “the manner in which he treats religion is, however, unsatisfying,” arguing that the diverse forms of Catholicism and Protestantism “deserve to be heard more loudly.”

Euan Cameron calls The Unintended Reformation “extraordinary and fascinating,” a work that is “phenomenally learned, intricately and ingeniously argued…with astonishing intellectual virtuosity as well as erudition,” a work that impresses its readers with “intricate chains of logic…stacked one upon another, such that the argument appears to sweep one along with the irresistible force of a mountain torrent.” However, according to Cameron, it is also “deliberately provocative and sometimes exasperating.” Cameron, a professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary, claims he does “not recognize [Gregory’s] portrait of the Reformation.” He argues that “Gregory’s underlying assumption throughout the book appears to be that medieval Western Catholicism constituted a ‘correct’ understanding of Christianity, and that all other belief systems are therefore profoundly erroneous.” In this sense, Cameron seems to imply that The Unintended Reformation is a “Catholic historiography blaming the reformers for breaking up the medieval synthesis.” It is, in the end, a “long threnody for a lost age of grace, specifically, the lost age of medieval Western European Catholicism, or even more specifically that of Thomist philosophy and medieval monastic/sacramental piety.”

And according to Eire, although it challenges current historiographical orthodoxy, his take on The Unintended Reformation is “overwhelming positive,” mainly because he appreciates Gregory’s “eagerness to challenge prevailing assumptions, especially those that have governed Reformation studies.”

The essays published on The Immanent Frame are less conflicted, however. James Chappel, for instance, argues that The Unintended Reformation is a “deeply anti-democratic work.” “It is not,” writes Chappel, “a serious work of history.” It is a work written in an “imperious intellectual style,” and refuses “to engage in dialogue.” Perhaps most harshly, Chappel compares Gregory’s “persistent closed-mindedness” to Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Both scholars are “convinced that the die of modernity were cast somewhere around 1650…both are inordinately long…both are obsessed with Spinoza…and both authors adopt the pose of a Cassandra, howling obvious truths into a world too blinkered by its iPhones to understand.”

If Chappel’s verdict can be deemed as “much too harsh,” Ian Hunter‘s review is downright acerbic.  He maintains that Gregory’s “narrative of the modern world is precommitted to the historical centrality of the Catholic and Protestant churches,” and his “portrayal and solution to the problem of modern cultural pluralism is thus wholly internal to his own confessional-intellectual position.” The Unintended Reformation, as Hunter’s entitled essay clearly states, is a “return to sacred history”; it is ahistorical and absolute, an example of a “particular faith commitment jostling for space alongside a plurality of others.”

The reviews of Peter E. Gordon, Victoria Kahn, Adrian Pabst, Paul Silas Peterson, Guido Vanheeswijkck, and Thomas Pfau are less severe, more measured, and even congenial. In the Historically Speaking forum, Gregory offers a defense—if not blistering correction—against his critics (he has not responded to his critics in The Immanent Frame).

The Unintended Reformation aims “to answer a basic but very big question: How did contemporary ideological and institutional realities in North America and Europe come to be as they are?” In answering this “very big question,” Gregory traces the complex historical legacies of the religious revolution inaugurated by Protestant reformers in sixteenth-century Europe. He centers on the paradox that a movement that was designed to renew and purify religious truth and to intensify spirituality had the unforeseen consequence of creating the increasingly secular societies in which we live today, and which, according to Gregory, reveals the absence of any substantive common good

Gregory wants to discredit what he calls “supersessionist” models of historical change: narratives predicated upon teleology and upon the assumption that the steady displacement of “medieval” (read: primitive) by “modern” (read: progressive) ideas, practices, and structures is a wholly positive development. These modern, sophisticated, or enlightened ideas, Gregory notes, always seem to bear a striking similarity to those of the historian and his or her like-minded colleagues in the faculty lounge. The problem with supercessionist histories is that the overwhelming majority of westerners, unlike most historians, are not disenchanted, secularist intellectuals, and any serious interpretations of history claiming to explain how we got to the present day must also describe the present as it actually is—not as the historian thinks it should be or soon will be.

The Unintended Reformation is, therefore, a “damning critique and a salutary admonition that narratives of progress…have failed to give an adequate account of the contemporary world.” Following in the footsteps of Herbert Butterfield and others, Gregory recognizes the roots of this whiggish historical vision in the very eras under his examination and regards its tenacious success as a reflection of “ideological imperialism.” “Prevailing periodization and parceling of the past,” Gregory argues, “reflect institutionalized assumptions about change over time, which are in turn related to other intellectual discipline with their own aims and presuppositions, all of which are also part of what needs to be explained because they, too, are historical products.” “It seeks to show,” he goes on, “that intellectual, political, social, and economic history cannot be neatly separated from one another, because human beings embedded within social and political relationships enact desires in relationship to the natural world influenced by beliefs and ideas.” And finally, pivotal to his narrative is “the Reformation era because its unresolved doctrinal disagreements and concrete religio-political disruptions are the key to answering the book’s central question. The ongoing consequences of these controversies and conflicts,” he says, “continue to influence all Western women and men today regardless of anyone’s particular commitments.”

In this way The Unintended Reformation uses historical analysis to highlight and speak to contemporary concerns. “I hope the book will convince colleagues,” Gregory pleads, “that the exclusion of intellectually sophisticated religious perspectives from research universities is inconsistent with the open-mindedness that should characterize the academy’s ostensible commitments to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry without ideological restrictions.”

Chapter one traces how a metaphysical system in which God was regarded as a transcendent being separate from his creation and outside the normal order of causation was displaced by a “univocal” one in which He is seen as an integral part of it and conceived of in spatial terms. It is intended, Gregory writes, to explain “why so many highly educated people today think that the truth claims of revealed religion per se are rendered less plausible in proportion to the explanatory power of the natural sciences.” It is this chapter that should interest historians of science the most, for Gregory “challenges an all-too-complacent textbook narrative about the relationship between religion and science.” Chapter one argues that this assumption is a function not of scientific findings, but rather derives from a metaphysical view with its origins in the later Middle Ages.

The roots of this mindset reach back centuries, Gregory says, to the late-medieval theologian John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), who argued that God and man both exist in the same essence of things and that therefore man may speak of God with univocal as opposed to analogical language. In Scotus’ thinking, the word “wise,” for example, might apply to God in the same sense in which it applies to man. This had the effect, says Gregory, of defining God as if He were bound by the material world rather than transcendent over it. And when this view combined with William of Occam’s (1285-1349) “razor”—the principle that the best argument is the one with the fewest unnecessary parts—philosophers eventually felt emboldened to exclude God from any explanation of natural phenomena: and, in time, from any argument at all.

Chapter two explores the relativization of religious truth in the wake of the Reformation and the origins of what Gregory calls “Western hyperpluralism.” Gregory expands on a familiar contention of Catholic intellectuals: that the Protestant reformers, by placing more emphasis on Scripture than on ecclesiastical authority, paved the way for modern moral relativism. The reformers, who clashed over scriptural interpretation even as they championed it as the sole authority in matters of faith, in effect tempted later generations of philosophers and intellectuals to replace Scripture with reason. When reason later failed, it was replaced in the guise of “tolerance.” “The anti-Roman appeal to scripture alone yielded an open-ended range of rival interpretations of God’s truth.” The point is not whether or not Protestants could agree on anything, but “the historical impact of the disagreements that were in fact doctrinally, socially, and politically divisive regardless of whatever else was still held in common.”

Gregory’s third chapter explores the evolving relationship between church and state since the late Middle Ages. His argument in this chapter is that “what had been a jurisdictional rather than a doctrinal contestation in the late Middle Ages, one in which secular authorities were indeed increasingly exercising temporal control over ecclesiastical institutions, was actually intensified and transformed as a result of the doctrinal disagreements that accompanied the Reformation.”

Chapter four and five analyzes the “subjectivizing of morality” and, closely related,  “manufacturing the goods life.” He traces the long-term transition from virtue ethics (moral behavior as an outgrowth of personal character) to an ethics centered on individual rights. The multiplication of mutually exclusive moral communities sowed the seeds of the idea that morality is contingent and constructed. This was assisted by Protestantism’s distinctive soteriology: its insistence that human behavior and will play no part at all in salvation, which is entirely dependent upon the gift of divine grace. When the reformers propounded their belief that salvation could be achieved by faith alone, they prepared the way for moral individualism and consumerism. The result being our “modern Western moral philosophy and political thought.” In turn, all this has created the conditions for rampant consumerism, for “the cycle of acquire, discard, repeat,” which is “the default fabric of Western life.”

In chapter six Gregory argues that knowledge itself has become secularized. The Reformation’s central tenet of sola scriptura meant that the parameters of intellectual life were essentially defined by the content of the Bible. By problematizing the relationship between theology and human understanding, Protestantism laid “the first paving stones of the twisting path that led to the secularization of knowledge.” Instilling “a carefully calibrated skepticism” in students became the chief aim of higher education. Indeed, as he argues in his defense, Gregory sees that “specialized academic research tends to discourage critical inquiry about the character and presumptive neutrality of intellectual assumptions that are routinely taken for granted. One cannot be aware of problems one does not see, and one cannot see what is occluded by the very disciplinary boundaries and research agendas we are supposed to accept.”

Gregory’s descriptions at times are partial and exaggerated, but there is a great deal of truth in them, too. The trouble sets in when he tries to trace the “genealogy” of our lamentable state back to the Reformation. That is, Gregory attempts to show a direct and causal link between two moments in history, dissected by centuries of complexity, of intermingling, interfering, and intervening events. Gregory’s argument is quite plausible, but his analysis is too truncated by his selection of figures and events.

Myths about Science and Religion – That Modern Science has Secularized Western Culture (Final)

My last review of Galileo goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion comes from the pioneering historian of science, John Hedley Brooke, who wrote an entry on the myth that modern science has secularized western culture.

Once upon a time, social scientists commonly asserted that scientific progress has been the principal cause of secularization. There is some truth in this assertion. The content of scientific theories has sometimes clashed with conventional readings of sacred texts. This was true, for example, in explanations of the earth’s motion in Galileo’s day and of evolutionary accounts of human origins in Darwin’s. Moreover, the introduction of Western education, philosophy, and technology in nineteenth-century India had consequences described by some as a “massive and thoroughgoing secularization.”

But this claim ultimately “belongs to a category of obviously true propositions that, on closer examination, turn out to be largely false.” Brooke correctly points out that many social scientists now reject what was once known as a “secularization thesis.” Second, whereas some science-based technologies may have replaced or distracted from religious life, others have definitely facilitated religious observance; for example, in some Jewish and Muslim communities smartphone apps are used to measure fasting times, Sabbat or Ramadan.

Brooke also wants to make a distinction between “secularization of science and secularization by science.” Although religious language had largely disappeared from technical scientific literature by the end of the nineteenth century, it does not follow that religious beliefs were no longer to be found among scientists. Indeed, scientists with religious convictions have often found confirmation of their faith in the beauty and elegance of the mechanisms of the natural world. Brooke points to seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler and, more recently, former director of the Human Genome Project and current Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, who sees his work as the unraveling of a God-given code.

Many more examples are available. But all the evidence suggests, writes Brooke, that “scientific theories have usually been susceptible to both theistic and naturalistic readings.” Brooke gives the example of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. For Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s theory made it possible “to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” But Brooke reminds us that we shouldn’t forget some of Darwin’s earliest sympathizers in Britain were Christian clergyman such as Charles Kingsley and Frederick Temple.

A central point Brooke wants to make is that instead of seeing science as intrinsically and inextricably secular, it is more correct to see it as neutral with respect to questions concerning God’s existence. This was the position taken by, for example, Thomas Henry Huxley, who saw science as neither Christian nor anti-Christian but “extra-Christian,” meaning that it had a scope and autonomy independent of religious interests. Darwin’s own agnosticism, moreover, derived not from his scientific discoveries  but a strong reaction against evangelical Christian preaching on heaven and hell.

The central problem with this myth then, according to Brooke, consists in the view that science, more than any other factor, is the sole agent of secularization.

Numerous sociological studies have demonstrated that conversions to unbelief are often associated with the change from conservative to radical politics, with religion being rejected as part of established, privileged society. What’s more, historical research, such as higher criticism of the Bible, more than scientific research, proved far more subversive and fatal to conservative belief, as “biblical writers came to be seen not as timeless authorities but as unreliable products of their own culture.”

All these factors leads Brooke to conclude that it is “wiser to look to long-term changes in social structure and to changes in religion itself if one wishes to understand the momentum of secularity.” Indeed, in modern times, the expansion of secularism can be correlated with social, political, and economic transformations having little direct connection with science. Brooke points to social and geographical mobility; growth in capitalism, commerce, and consumerism; secular values promoted in the sphere of education and by the media; and the growth of national solidarity and ideology of political parties have all attempted to replace traditional religious beliefs in one way or another. Because different countries and cultures have experienced the tension between secular and religious values in contrasting ways, “there is no one, universal process of secularization that can be ascribed to science or to any other factor.”

The European Commission and the Commemorative Euro Coin


Cyril and Methodius with halos and crosses, and without

Andrew Higgins, in one of the cover stories of today’s New York Times, reports how the European Commission ordered the National Bank of Slovakia to remove halos and crosses from a commemorative euro coin to be minted this summer (“A More Secular Europe, Divided by the Cross“).

The coins are a celebration of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands by the evangelizing Byzantine Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, missionaries to the Slavic people. In the original design, the brothers are depicted with heads crowned by halos and a robe decorated with the cross. These items were removed in the new design. According to the Roman Catholic archbishop of the Slovak capital, Stanislav Zvolensky, “There is a movement in the European Union that wants total religious neutrality and can’t accept our Christian traditions.”


The EU flag, with its circles of 12 yellow stars, inspired by iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars

But according to Katharina von Schnurbein, the commission official responsible for outreach to both religious and “philosophical and non-confessional organizations,” the “European Commission is not the anti-Christ.” The report also notes that even the European Union’s flag has a coded Christian message. Indeed, the French Catholic, Arsène Heitz, who designed the flag in 1955, was inspired by Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars. These stars are also depicted on the to be minted coins.

The unification of Europe too has its origins in Christian ideals. A united Europe was first proposed in the ninth century by Charlemagne, the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

But modern history tells a different story. The 1951 Treaty of Rome and other founding texts of the EU, makes no mention of God or Christianity.

But von Schnurbein dismisses accusations that the EU has a anti-Christian agenda. Rather, she says, “We deal with people of faith and also people of no faith.” Higgins emphasizes this point, writing that “assertive secularists and beleaguered believers battle to make their voices heard,” leaving the European Commission “under attack from both sides.”

The EU, Higgins admits, is generally uncomfortable with religion. He gives two reasons for this. First, well-organized secular groups that “pounce on any hint that Christians are being favored over other religions or nonbelievers” are increasing in number and campaign strategies.

The second reason, however, is somewhat contradictory. Higgins claims that “church attendance is falling across Europe as belief in God wanes and even cultural attachments wither.” But in the very next sentence he states that “the continent’s fastest-growing faith is now Islam.” He also states that in Britain more people believe in extraterrestrials than in God, and offers a statistical number—without reference—asserting that only half the population of the EU as a whole believe in God. But this is evidence not so much of religious decline as it is of religious transformation.

Ultimately, Higgins concludes, Slovakia’s national bank has decided to stick with its original coin design, with halos and crosses (which makes one wonder of the editorial wording of the title). The European Commission has also agreed to adhere to the original design, honoring the memory of Cyril and Methodius.

Desecularizing the World

Christianity Judaism Islam Buddhism Hinduism symbolsContinuing the trend from the last post, in this post we will be looking at a different book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999), edited by Peter L. Berger. Few scholars have contributed so much to our understanding of religion and modernity as Berger. Beginning in the 1960s, he advanced the argument that the collapse of “the sacred canopy” provided by religion has created a crisis for faith, forcing it into a position of “cognitive bargaining” but ultimately ends up bargaining away religious substance in order to survive in a relentlessly secular and secularizing modern world. These thoughts were first published in his widely popular book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967).

In this more recent book, however, Berger has changed his mind, reproves his earlier thoughts on the subject, and tells us why in the introductory essay. Indeed, what needs explanation, he tells us, is not the continued vitality of religion, a phenomenon that puzzles so many modern intellectuals, but why so many modern intellectuals are puzzled by it! The present collection of essays emerges from a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which includes a leading essay by Berger, along with other expert sociologists George Weigel, David Martin, Jonathan Sacks, Grace Davie, Tu Weiming, and Abdullahi A. an-Na’im.

What needs to be said at the outset is that this book is dated. Most of the essays, moreover, are unremarkable and thus most are not worth detailed exposition. To summarize its contents is a simple task. In the opening essay, Berger refutes the link between secularization and modernity; Weigel writes about Roman Catholicism, telling us that the Catholic Church “has reacquired a certain critical distance from the worlds of power, precisely in order to help those worlds accountable to universal moral norms;” Martin writes about the Evangelical upsurge, assigning its political implications to its individualistic approach and pragmatism; Sacks, who focuses on Jewish identity in the context of post-modernity and secularization, says that Jews live “in a condition of ambivalence about themselves and trauma about their relationship with the world”; while the rest of the world tends toward desecularization, Europe seems to be the exception to the rule, says Davie; in communist China Weiming writes that “as China is well on it sways to becoming an active member of the international society, the political significance of religion will continue to be obvious”; and writing about political Islam, an-Na’im says that the principle of pluralism and the protection of basic human rights, which is and always has been an Islamic imperative, should be followed.

Out of the seven essays, two stand out. Berger’s essay was the keynote lecture of the series, and of course, he is interested in doing more than just describing the current state of play of world politics. Berger begins by musing over the recent interest in the Fundamentalism Project. Sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the MacArthur Foundation, the Project was an international scholarly investigation of conservative religious movements throughout the world. The Project, which began in 1987 and concluded in 1995, was directed by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Why, Berger muses, exert resources to studying religious fundamentalism? The most obvious answer was that because “fundamentalism” is such a strange and hard-to-understand phenomena, the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien world and make it more understandable.

But understandable to whom? This crucial questions leads Berger to an epiphany: the concern that must have led this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which “fundamentalism” is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but the knowledge of it. That is to say, it is this elite group of intellectuals that is a rare, and hard-to-explain thing. “The world today,” writes Berger, “is a furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” Thus the assumption of secularism, and the secularization theory, is both mistaken and false. The key ideas of the theory, traced back to the Enlightenment, is that modernization necessarily leads to religious decline, both in society and in the minds of individuals. It is this key ideas, Berger maintains, that has turned out to be wrong. “To put it simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed: religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism have widely succeeded.”

Turning to the global religious scene, Berger observes that, on the one hand “it is conservative or orthodox or tradtionalist movements that are on the rise almost everywhere,” and, on the other, that “religious movements and institutions that have made great efforts to conform to a perceived modernity are almost everywhere on the decline.” From the remarkable revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the rapidly growing orthodox Jewish groups in Israel and the Diaspora, to the vigorous upsurges of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, “taken together they provide a massive falsification of the idea that modernization and secularization are cognate phenomena.”

While the world today is massively religious, there are, however, two exceptions, one somewhat unclear, the other very clear. The first apparent exception is of course Europe. In Western Europe, if nowhere else, the old secularization theory seems to hold true. There are indeed increased indications in secularization both in expressed belief and personal codes of behavior.  Yet there are a number of recent works, Berger notes, that make this exception deeply problematic. Notably in France, Britain, and even Scandinavia, there is a body of literature indicating strong survivals of religion. What’s more, it seems that there has only been a shift in the institutional location of religion, rather than secularization. That is, there has been a shift away from organized religion, to personal, “spiritual” religious attitudes. Thus Europe as secular is a rather ambiguous assertion, requiring much qualification, detailed and careful analysis.

The other, and definitely clearer, exception to the upsurge in religious movements is the existence of an international subculture composed of people with Western-style higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that is indeed secularized. “This subculture is the principal carrier of progressive, Enlightened beliefs and values. Although relatively thin on the ground, they are widely influential, providing the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system.” Berger calls them the a “globalized elite culture,” and the plausibility of secularization theory owes much to this elite subculture, for when they travel they usually touch down in isolated, intellectual circles, i.e. among people much like themselves. But because of this, they easily fall into the misconception that these people reflect the overall society, which is, of course, a mistake.

What are the origins of this new religious upsurge? Berger hints at two possible answers: first, religion provides certainty when so much of our taken-for-granted certainties have been undermined by modernity, or it appeals to people who resent the social influence of that small, cultural elite. But the most satisfying answer, Berger says, and the most historically accurate, is that “strongly felt religion has always been around; what needs explanation is its absence rather than its presence.” Thus the so-called “religious upsurge” simply serves to demonstrate continuity in the place of religion in human experience.

What are the prospects of this new religious upsurge? Berger argues that there is no reason to think the world of the twenty-first century will be any less religious than the world of past generations. But it is also true that many of these religious movements are linked to non-religious forces of one sort or another, and thus the future course of the former will be at least partially determined by the course of the latter.

The “new” religious upsurge is, of course, particular, differing in their critique of modernity and secularity. But what most of these religious movements do seem to agree upon is the shallowness of a culture that tries to get along without any transcendent points of reference. “The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity” from time immemorial. The critique of secularity common to all the resurgent movements is that “human existence bereft of transcendence is an impoverished and finally untenable condition.”

The other essay worth noting in the collection is Davie’s “Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?” Davie takes secularization theory quite seriously, and it seems that data proves that in Europe the old secularization thesis hold true. But data, she points out, never explains anything. It is the interpretation of data that explains. The data from Europe, for instance, provides several interpretations, and that some explanations are more nuanced than others. Davie proposes that “might it not be the case that Europeans are not so much less religious than citizens in other parts of the world as differently religious?” Her emphasis.

Davie disentangles various meanings behind the term secularization, specifically as used by Steve Bruce, José Casanova, and Daniele Hervieu-Léger, evaluating them against recent data from the European Values System Study Group (EVSSG), survey findings of 1981 and 1990. In her estimation, it is not so much that there is less religion but that European religion is now expressed differently from how it used to be expressed: hence, Europe is less “secular” than it is “unchurched.” She writes, “while many Europeans have ceased to participate in religious institutions, they have not yet abandoned many of their deep-seated religious inclinations.”

In interpreting the data, Davie finds the approach of French sociologist Hervieu-Léger most promising. Hervieu-Léger argues that modern societies (especially modern European societies) are less religious, not because they are increasingly rational (they are not), but because they are less and less capable of maintaining the memory that lies at the heart of the religious existence. In other words, they are “amnesiac societies.”

While modern societies may well corrode their traditional religious base, they also open spaces that only religion can fill. Hervieu-Léger calls this “utopian” spaces. Modern individuals are encouraged to seek answers, find solutions, and make progress. Such aspirations become an increasingly normative part of human experience. But the image of utopia must always exceed reality, and the more successful the projects of modernity, the greater the mismatch becomes. “Hence the paradox of modernity, which in its historical forms removes the need for the sense of religion, but in its utopian forms must stay in touch with the religious.”

In the end, religion, and churches in Western Europe, still function as a kind of “vicarious memory.” Many Europeans remain grateful rather than resentful of their churches, recognizing that the churches perform a number of tasks on behalf of the population as a whole. One of the most obvious risks of operating vicariously, Davie notes, is the lack of direct contact between the churches and the population. This dramatically leads to a generation-by-generation drop in religious knowledge. Davie concludes that “an ignorance of even the basic understandings of Christian teaching is the norm in modern Europe, especially among young people; it is not a reassuring attribute.”

Rethinking Secularism: José Casanova’s The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms

José Casanova’s exemplary essay in Rethinking Secularism is one of the best I have read on the subject. Casanova, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, engages secularism from a critical analytical angle. Because there are multiple and various ways of experiencing the secular, what we need is to differentiate between such experiences, as the “secular,” “secularization,” and “secularism.”

The Secular

There has been a radical—if not paradoxical—reversal in how the term “secular” is understood. The secular as a modern epistemic category is used to construct, codify, grasp, and experience a realm or reality differentiated from the “religious.” That is, the secular has often been assumed to be simply the “other of the religious,” that which is non-religious.  As such it functions as a residual category, something left over from the “religious,” a remainder. But in our modern “secular age,” as Taylor puts it, the secular encompasses the whole of reality, in a sense replacing the “religious” altogether. This naturalization of the non-religious, of unbelief, of the secular, completely reverses the traditional view. The secular is no longer the residual category, it is the category, the norm. Understood as a natural reality, the secular is the true natural social and anthropological condition or substratum that remains when the “religious” is lifted or disappears.

Casanova remarks that this reversal is quite the paradox. “Rather than being the residual category, as was original the case, the secular appears now as a reality, tout court, while the religious is increasingly perceived not only as the residual category, but also as a superstructural and superfluous additive, which both humans and societies can do without.”

But according to Casanova, such a reversal is the uncritical and unreflexive functionalist ideologies of theories of secularization and secularist worldviews. Such ideologies often disregard—and indeed sometimes mask—the particular and the contingent historical process of the secular, projecting instead a universal human development. In the end such ideologies of the secular as a natural and universal substratum “avoid the task of analyzing, studying, and explaining the secular.”

Casanova takes up the task in the remaining pages of his essay. He begins by pointing out that the term “secular” first emerged as a theological category, as a unit of a dyadic pair of religious/secular, as mutually constitutive. In its original theological meaning, to secularize meant to “make worldly,” to convert religious persons or things into secular ones, as when a religious person abandoned the monastic rule to live in the saeculum, “the worldly age,” or when monastic property was secularized following the Protestant Reformation.

From this point of historical origins, Casanova draws our attention to at least two dynamic forms of “secularization.” First, there was an internal Christian secularization, a process which aims to spiritualize the temporal world, bringing the religious life of perfection out of the monasteries and into the secular world, the countryside, the urban, the court. This was the chosen path of those associated with the devotio moderna, with medieval movements of Christian reform, eventually receiving a  radicalized form by Protestant reformers. Second, there was a converse process, that of anticlericalism and laicization, a liberation of all secular spheres from ecclesiastical control. This was the chosen path of the French Revolution and later subsequent liberal revolutions. “Its aim was the explicit purpose of breaking the monastery walls to laicize those religious places, dissolving and emptying their religious content and making religious persons, monks and nuns, civil and laic before forcing them into the world, now conceived as merely as secular place emptied of religious symbols and religious meanings.” Such as path of laicization, argues Casanova, could well serve as the basic metaphor of all subtraction narratives of secular modernity. It is important to note that in both forms the “secular” means the same thing, as the worldly age.

Closer to our own day, Casanova points another, and narrower, way of conceiving the “secular” as that of self-sufficient and exclusive secularity. We mentioned this point in Taylor’s essay, so we will be brief here. The secular in this sense is a self-enclosed reality, where people are simply “irreligious,” closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame. Taylor describes this phenomenological experience of the immanent frame as constituting an interlocking constellation of the modern differentiated cosmic, social, and moral orders. That is, all three orders are understood as purely immanent secular orders, devoid of transcendence and thus functioning etsi Deus non daretur, “as if God would not exist.”

This understanding of the secular, however, is deeply problematic. This naturalization of unbelief, or non-religion, as the normal human condition in modern societies corresponds to the assumptions of dominant theories of secularization, which postulate a progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices with increasing modernization, so that the more modern a society happens to be, the more secular, and thus the less religious. But the connection between secularity and modernity becomes questionable, according to Casanova, when we realize that in many modern non-European societies are fully secular yet their populations are also at the same time conspicuously religious (e.g. the United States or South Korea).  Thus this second, and modern, meaning of the term “secular,” as being devoid of religion, the secular does not happen automatically as a result of processes of modernization or even as the result of the social construction of a self-enclosed immanent frame; rather, it needs to be “mediated phenomenological by some other particular historical experience.”

Casanova finds this particular historical experience in the “stadial consciousness” inherited from the Enlightenment narrative, which understands the change in the condition of belief as a process of maturation and growth, as a “coming of age,” and as progressive emancipation. It was the construction of this quasi-natural process of development, this philosophy of history, which has functioned as confirming the superiority of our present modern secular age over other supposedly earlier, and therefore primitive, religious forms of understanding. “To be secular means to be modern, and therefore, by implication, to be religious means to be somehow not yet fully modern.” Thus any remnant of thus “surpassed” condition, to a primitive mode of thinking, becomes an “unthinkable intellectual regression” in our modern times.

The function of the secular as a philosophy of history, and thus as ideology, is to turn secularization into a universal teleological process of human development from belief to unbelief, from primitive irrational or metaphysical religion to modern rational post-metaphysical secular consciousness.

Casanova’s core criticism against this second, modern definition of secular (i.e. as ideology) is that in places where such secularist historical stadial consciousness is absent or less dominant, as in the United States or in most non-Western post-colonial societies, the process of modernization is unlikely to be accompanied by a process of religious decline. Indeed, Casanova persuasively argues that it was this secularist stadial consciousness that was the crucial factor in the widespread secularization that has accompanied the modernization of western European societies. “Europeans tend to experience their own secularization as a natural consequence of their modernization. To be secular is experienced not as an existential choice, but, rather, as a natural outcome of becoming modern.” This consisted, according to both Casanova and Taylor, as stadial accounts or conceptions of history, which emerged first in the Scottish Enlightenment from thinkers such as Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). According to these and subsequent thinkers, human society passes through certain stages, e.g. hunter-gatherer, agricultural, commercial. These stages, usually defined ultimately in economic terms, describe an advance. Higher ones represent development, a gain, from which it would be quite irrational to try to retreat once they have come about. But as we have seen in the work of Dan Edelstein and others mentioned in these posts, such a narrative is a modern myth.


While the “secular” may be a central, modern epistemic category, “secularization,” usually refers to actual or alleged empirical-historical patterns of transformation and differentiation of the”religious” and the “secular” institutional spheres from early-modern to contemporary societies. As Casanova explains, although the social sciences view secularization as a general theory, it actually consists of distinct and, ultimately, disparate parts: (1) institutional differentiation, such as state, economy, and science, from the religious; (2) the progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices as a result of modernization; and (3) the privatization of religion as a precondition of modern and democratic politics.

The tendency of social scientists to view all three processes as intrinsically interrelated components of a single general teleological process of secularization and modernization, is, however, deeply problematic. In recent years two of the sub-theses of the theory of secularization, namely, the decline of religion and the privatization of religion, have undergone numerous critiques and revisions. Yet the core of the thesis, the single process of functional differentiation of institutional spheres, remains relatively uncontested.

Why? Answering this question once again leads us to another paradox. As already mentioned, the “secular” first emerged as a particular Western Christian theological category. Yet its modern antonym, the “religious” is itself a Western-European modern secularist category. By recognizing this paradox, we begin to comprehend the critical significance of the colonial encounter in European developments, the concomitant globalization of the category of religion, and the hotly disputed and debated how, where, and by whom the proper boundaries between the religious and the secular ought to be drawn.

Indeed, the very category of secularization becomes deeply problematic once it is placed in this historical context, as Eurocentric. European secularization should be seen, according to Casanova, as provincial, as the exception and not the rule (but even here there is some ambiguity—see my forthcoming Grace Davie post, Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?). This historical process was exceptional, and is unlikely to be reproduced anywhere else in the world with a similar sequential arrangement and with the corresponding stadial consciousness. “Without such a stadial consciousness,” writes Casanova, “it is unlikely that the immanent frame of the secular modern order will have similar phenomenological effects on the conditions of belief and unbelief in non-Western societies. Secularization thus requires—indeed, needs—a stadial consciousness, a narrative of progressive stages from the primitive to the modern.


Finally, there is “secularism,” viewed as a worldview and ideology, or more broadly to a whole range of modern secular worldviews and ideologies which may be consciously (or unconsciously) held and explicitly (or implicitly) elaborated into philosophies of history and normative-ideological state projects or cultural programs. But “secularism” may also be viewed, as we have seen, unreflexively or be assumed phenomenologically as a taken-for-granted normal structure of modern reality, as modern doxa or an “unthought.”

Casanova finds it fruitful to draw a distinction between secularism as statecraft doctrine and secularism as ideology. By statecraft Casanova means the principle of separation of church and state, between religious and political authority. Such a principle neither presupposes nor entails any substantive theory of religion. But when the state hold explicitly a particular conception of religion, one enters the realm of ideology.

There are at least, according to Casanova, two basic types of secularist ideologies. The first we have already mentioned, which is grounded in some progressive stadial philosophies of history that regulate religion to a superseded stage. The second is related to the first, in that it presuppose religion as either an irrational force or a non-rational form of discourse that should be banished from the democratic public sphere.

Reformed philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, William P. Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William J. Wainwright, George I. Mavrodes, and many others have shown the latter to be utterly bankrupted and no longer tenable. For his part, Casanova, being the sociologists and not the philosopher, is more interested in examining the extent to which secularist assumptions permeate the taken-for-granted assumptions and thus the phenomenological experiences of ordinary people. Such secularism “stands for self-sufficient and exclusive secularity, when people are not simply religiously ‘unmusical’ but are actually closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame.”

At this point Casanova returns to the crux of his argument, that in places where secularist stadial consciousness is absent, processes of modernization are unlikely to be accompanied by processes of religious decline. It follows that there must exist a normative self-image, a narrative, a belief that being religious is not modern. “To be secular is this sense means to leave religion behind, to emancipate oneself from religion, overcoming the non-rational forms of being, thinking, and feeling associated with religion.” Indeed, it is this assumption that entails both “subtraction” and “stadial” theories of secularity.

It is this essentializing of “religion,” of the “secular,” and even of the “political,” that is the fundamental problem of secularism as ideology. The whole idea of “religion is intolerant,” or “religion is in conflict,” with various modes of modernity is a construct that functions to positively differentiate modern secularists from the “religious other,” either from premodern religious Europeans or from contemporary non-European religious people, particularly Muslims. But such a view, as numerous historians of science have discovered, can hardly be grounded empirically in the collective historical experience of Europeans societies.

Why has this view nevertheless persisted? Casanova perceptively suggests that such a view of religion as the source of violent conflict is actually connected to “retrospective memory.” By viewing religion in the abstract, detaching it from historical reality, secularist ideology places modern secularist problems on the “religious other.” Indeed,

from 1914 to 1989, twentieth-century Europe can be characterized as one of the most violent, bloody, and genocidal centuries in the history of humanity. But none of the horrible massacres—not the senseless slaughter of millions of young Europeans in the trenches of WWI; or the countless millions of victims of Bolshevik and Communist terror through revolution, civil war, collectivization campaigns, the great famine in Ukraine, the repeated cycles of Stalinist terror, and the gulag; or the unfathomable of all, the Nazi Holocaust and the global conflagration of WWII, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—can be said to have been caused by religious fanaticism and intolerance. All of them were, rather, products of modern secular ideologies.

Yet contemporary Europeans, and many worldwide “intellectuals,” obviously prefer selectively to forget the more inconvenient recent memories of secular ideological conflict and retrieve instead a fictionalized account of religious wars or conflict with modernity. As Casanova puts it, “one may suspect that the function of such selective historical memory is to safeguard the perception of the progressive achievement of Western secular modernity, offering a self-vindicating justification of secular separation of religion and politics as the condition for modern liberal democratic politics, for global peace, and for the protection of individual privatized religious freedom.”

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Rethinking Secularism – Charles Taylor’s Western Secularity

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) has generated a huge amount of discussion. In the first chapter of Rethinking Secularism, entitled “Western Secularity,” Taylor revisits central themes from A Secular Age as he charts the historical trajectory that led from the “axial religion” through Latin Christendom to the contemporary conditions of modern secularity.

While noting that the term “secular” is both complex and ambiguous and subject to alterations and distortions as it travels from one context to another, Taylor nonetheless argues that Western secularity should be understood as the result of a fundamental change in sensibility marked by “disenchantment,” or the systematic repression of the “magical” elements of religion, as well as by a concomitant historical movement toward the association or personal commitment with “true” religion.

“Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.”

The broader historical context for these shifts was a “great disembedding” of social and collective life and a movement toward reform within Christianity, which, along with other historical developments, led not only to the rise of modern individualism but also to the possibility of conceiving of the world in purely immanent terms, shorn of all reference to the transcendent.

The separation of the immanent from the transcendent, worked from within Latin Christendom itself, thus laid the groundwork for the assertion of a self-sufficient secular order. And it was the development of this possibility that led, in Taylor’s account, to the existential condition he most closely associates with modern secularity, namely, the contemporary reality that belief in God, or in any transcendent reality, is considered just one option among many and therefore represents a fragile form of commitment. According to Taylor, it is this shared condition of belief and commitment that makes the current age a “secular” one.

Rethinking Secularism – Introduction

Challenging the Bifurcation

In the Introduction to their Rethinking Secularism (2011), Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan Van Antwerpen begin by announcing that not only a host of political activism but a rising tide of scholarship has emerged challenging established understandings of how the terms “secularism” and “religion” function in public life. “Reigning theories of secularization have seen mounting critical attention…[l]ong the product of a relatively unexamined set of assumptions within the social sciences, dominant ‘modes of secularism’ have…recently come under intensified scrutiny.” The editors and writers of this volume seeks to take stock of this new tide of scholarship.

The issues of religion and secularism, they write, are “rooted in a mythic understanding” of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), as the supposed separation of sovereign nation-states from religious traditions. Despite its mythical nature, this myth was powerful, and thus thrived, leaving “religion” as something to be “rediscovered” more recently. They concur with Robert Keohane that “the attacks of September 11 reveal that all mainstream theories of world politics are relentlessly secular with respect to motivation.” These theories ignore, the editors add, “the impact of religion, despite the fact that world-shaking political movements have so often been fueled by religious fervor.” All this hinges on what is often called a “differentiation of social institutions,” which is basically the notion that the state, economy, and civil society are relatively autonomous, and, thus, “separate from the proper domain of religion.”

But the separation of politics from religion is increasingly a challenged bifurcation.  Activists around the world have challenged, for example, the supposed universality of Western secularism. These activists reject the Western distinction between “politics” and “religion,” and that such concepts should not be uncritically exported to other regions. Thus the editors argue that the “very use of the term ‘secular’ signifies that we are buying into a secular/religion distinction that in some ways defines not only the secular sphere itself but also the real of the religious.”

“Secularism,” moreover is only one of a cluster of related terms. Reference to the secular, secularity, secularism, and secularization can mean different things in confusing ways. These terms operate “in different conceptual frameworks with distinct histories.”

Much social conflict arises from the notion that religion and secularism are in opposition. The editors urge readers to “rethink the categorizes that makes such conflicts possible.”

Secularism and Religion

As a matter of fact, the editors tell us that “secularism is defined in tandem with its twin concept, religion, and how we think about one of these paired concepts affect the way we think about the other.” And with the rise of politically active religious movements, not only do we encounter challenges our thinking about the public role of religion, but it also queries our operative notions of secularism.

The reason for this conflict is that most of us are unconsciously affected by a grand narrative involving secularism in the spread of modernization. The editors provide the case of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, who viewed secularism as one of the “pillars of modernity.” For Nehru, secularism meant at least two different things: “social attitudes that were free of intolerance and ideas undergirding the state’s just laws and egalitarian political processes that were untainted with preferences for one group over another.”

This image of secularism and modernity was founded, fomented, and fostered in the minds of European reformers at the time of the Enlightenment. The eighteenth-century antagonism against religion was, in the final analysis, a profound disdain for the power of the church and its clergy. Additionally, Enlightenment thinkers were reacting against the preceding century’s Wars of Religion and the need to find a new moral basis for social order in the absence of a specifically religious justification.

The editors point out that the Enlightenment association of secularism with modernity required a clearer notion of “religion.” “The term ‘religion’,” they write, “was not one that was frequently used, even by Christians, until the Enlightenment’s deployment of the secular/religious distinction.” In other words, “religion,” as a set of proposition beliefs, was a creation of the Enlightenment. “Religion” makes sense only in juxtaposition to secularism. “It is used to demarcate the ideas, practices, beliefs, and institutions that are related to particular faiths and traditions…at once labeling these as religion and limiting religion’s scope.”

Although today we think of “secular” as something that is contrasted with “religion,” the root of the word merely referred to the affairs of a worldly existence and was used in the Middle Ages specifically to distinguish members of the clergy, who were attached to religious orders, from those who served worldly, local parishes. “The notion of the secular order is not particularly anti-religious, but rather continues a tradition of differentiating church and state that has existed for centuries in Christianity and is replicated in different ways in other traditions.” Thus the disparity between the “secular” and the “religious” is a rather recent invention.

Secularism and Secularization

The idea of secularism, then, does not presume a secularist stance toward politics and public life. This is another thing entirely. That is the idea of secularization, which suggests “a trend, a general tendency toward a world in which religion matters less and various forms of secular reasons and secular institutions matter more.” Thus discussions of secularization typically present modernity as necessarily involving a progressive disappearance of religion and its replacement with secularism. But this is a invented narrative, designed to present religion as an illusory solution to problems that could be met in modernity by the more “realistic” and “efficacious” methods of secular reason. But again, religious practice takes many forms other than advancing propositions which may be true or false. “From marriages to mourning, form solidifying local communities to welcoming newcomers into large and foreboding cities, from administering charities to sanctifying wars, religion involves a range of actions and institutions.”

The Current State of Play

The remainder of the book offers chapters presented by a range of thinkers, from philosophers to political theorists and sociologists. As I finish each chapter, I will post a new entry dedicated to it.

The Secularization of the European Mind

A popular mind, even when that mind is middle class…has a need to inflate if it is to understand. It seizes upon a salient point; the point which is easy to identify; the point which is graphic, can be pictured; the point which a newspaper can make readable. In seizing upon the salient point it distorts, casts the environment into shadow, forgets nuances and qualification, and inflates…we must label and isolate, because only so do we understand; and we overlook that what are really being opposed are knowledge in the seventeenth century versus knowledge in the nineteenth century.

This quote is taken from Owen Chadwick’s The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (1993, 1995, 2000). He argues that when Victorian scientists opposed religion it was out of a variety of motives that were seldom directly related to the content of their science. Chadwick also focuses on the way in which historical knowledge challenged traditional interpretations of the Bible in the nineteenth century. But, argues Chadwick, the public, sensitized by positivist views, failed to male such distinctions and was inclined to see every challenge to religious orthodoxy as scientific.

I read Chadwick’s work years ago, long before I decided to become a historian of science. I was reminded by his work while reading Richard Olson’s Science and Scientisim in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008), which I will review in a future post. I will be reading both in conjunction and when finished I will post another double review.