Secularity vs secularism: An interview with arabist and medievalist, Rémi Brague.
We post stuff like this every day on Facebook. Like us. You won't regret it.
Don't show this to me again
Close

Secularity vs secularism: an enlightening distinction

Who invented the secular state? A professor of religious philosophy from the Sorbonne gives a surprising answer.

Remi Brague Photo: Nexus Instituut, NetherlandsIn the wake of Pope Benedict's warning about atheism while visiting the UK, a debate has broken out about secularism.  Journalist Jerome di Costanzo interviews the arabist and medievalist, Rémi Brague, who sheds much light on the question.

1) Secularists tend to deny the mediaeval origin of the notion of secularity. From your point of view is it possible to ignore it?

First, a quick glance at the reasons that lead those people to dodge or camouflage this medieval origin could be apposite. Generally speaking, there has been since the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment a widespread negative prejudice against whatever is or is supposed to be, medieval. The received wisdom tells us: Good things arose in Modern Times, full stop. The Middle Ages were a period of darkness, fuller stop.

As for the case of secularity, its advocates specifically want, or pretend to, ignore that it appeared in the Middle Ages, a period that was emphatically not secularist. The dividing line drawn between the Church and the State is a Christian invention that began among the Church Fathers, as a reaction against Constantine’s claim to control the Church and further culminated in medieval times. Moreover, this line was drawn by the Church, not by the State. The Holy See’s constant policy from the Investiture Controversy in the late 11th century consisted in sending the State (i.e. the Emperor or the Kings) back to its own merely this worldly—“secular” if you want—task: enforcing peace, justice, good social order. The State, on the other hand, was not merely “secular”, but claimed its share in sacrality. Just think of the adjective: “Holy Roman Empire”. Secularity was a conquest of the Church.   

2) The recent papal visit in Britain has re-awakened the debate about secularity in our society. What exactly is your definition of secularity?

“Secularity” may have many meanings, but it designates in any case a fact, not an ideology or a program of action, unlike “secularism”, which I will deal with presently.

Secularity qualifies a certain realm of things on which unaided human reason can, in principle at least, reach an agreement that enables cooperation towards the common good. Religion can leave alone scientific, technical, political matters, etc. because it could not be of any specific help. Scientists, technicians, politicians, or, for that matter, anglers, plumbers or jellied-eels sellers can become saints if they do their job properly. But Christianity won’t give them many hints on how to ply their trade in their technicalities.

Let me sketch a general rule: for a Christian, subsidiarity as a principle brooks no exception and obtains in the relationship between God and His creatures, too—or even in the first place. The Creator gives each and every creature the means that it needs for it to get its own good by its own exertions. For instance, God does not have to tell men what they should do. Since they were endowed with reason, they possess, at least in principle, the necessary tools for them to choose what is right and avoid what is not. God does not have to tell men what they should eat, how they should dress, where they should spend their holidays, etc. According to Aquinas, the Ten Commandments are nothing more than a reminder of what we should be able to know by ourselves. By this token, “secularity” is a good thing, and it is correct to avoid any interference of “religion” where it is not necessary. On the other hand, it is foolish not to accept its aid where we enter a realm in which religion alone is competent, for instance giving us the power of forgiving, assuaging our fear of death, leading us towards salvation.  

As for secularism as an ideology, I have two definitions. One attaches to the way in which people who define themselves as “secular” look at themselves. The word, together with “agnosticism”, “humanism”, etc., was coined in the Victorian era, when declaring oneself an “atheist” was hardly the thing. Secularism has over the latter word the advantage of a positive ring, whereas a-theism expresses a mere negation: not believing in God. Secularism, then, consists in limiting one’s ken to this-worldly matters, to what the Bible calls ha-‘olam haz-zeh.

But I have another definition up my sleeve. It is at the same time etymological and ironical. “Secular” comes from saeculum, the Latin for “century”, which originally meant the longest duration of human life. Secularity is the attitude of people who think that human hopes can’t exceed one century and therefore—perhaps unwittingly and unwillingly—act so that mankind will last exactly as long... Secularists are unable to explain why it is good that there should be human beings on earth. Since they contend that human life is the product of chance, they can’t tell us why it should be good for us, who can decide consciously to carry on with the experience, to do so.  

3) Benedict XVI said during his visit: "As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny." If so, are atheists potentially totalitarian?

Thank goodness, what is potential does not always become actuality. And all atheists are not prone to totalitarianism. Many even loathed it, nay fought against it. Think of people like George Orwell.

Yet, the assumption gains in plausibility when we shift from individuals to the collective level. A massive fact bears witness to that, namely the massacres of the 20th century. They simply dwarf whatever havoc religion may have wrought in the past. The worst bloodsheds of the last century, and probably of history at large, were not caused by religious faith, on the contrary. Even the so-called “wars of religion” in the 16th century can be chalked up for a large part to the rise of the Modern State under its earliest historical form, i.e. the absolute monarchy. The killing fields of World War I were due to nationalism, to self-idolatry of the national and/or imperial states. World War II was a consequence of nazi ideology, that was, to quote Hitler, “a sober theory of reality grounded on the sharpest scientific knowledge and its expression in thought” (eine kühle Wirklichkeitslehre schärfster wissenschaftlicher Erkenntnisse und ihrer gedanklichen Ausprägung) (Talk in Nuremberg on the Day of the NS-Party, June, 9th 1938). Lenin and his followers understood their version of marxism as “scientific” in nature.

4) In Westminster Hall the Holy Father talked about the necessity to respect the “right of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square”. This comes after the closure of a Catholic adoption agency following Labour’s Sexual Orientation Regulations and is a very practical illustration of the practice of secularity. How should the moral or ethical teaching of the Churches function in the political debate?

I don’t know the details of this story, so that I would rather not comment upon it.
Let me content myself with a general observation: Catholics do not defend something like “Catholic morality”. By the way, I am reluctant to call morality by any adjective whatsoever: Christian, Buddhist, progressive, even secular, etc. Moral rules have obtained since the outset; they vary very little. There are, on the other hand, Christian, Buddhist, etc. interpretations of moral life.

We should endeavour to get a clearer picture of the reasons why Christians—and not only the Pope, even if his voice, for obvious reasons, is more widely heard—have to speak up from time to time. They don’t preach up their own stuff, pro domo. They warn of dangers that menace mankind at large, and they have to do so when they think that some behaviour, be it individual or collective, is lethal for mankind. The supreme rule in those matters is some sort of a duty to rescue.

5) On the other hand, the government has refused to ban the Burqa in the name of this freedom. What do you think about this apparent difference of treatment?

In the name of the individual freedom of women, French government came to the opposite conclusion. Let me emphasize only one point: our idea of what a religion is, hence, of what freedom in religious matters should be, arose many centuries ago, and it was tailored to a definite religion, i.e. Christianity. Our governments have the know-how as far as dealing with Christians is concerned, even when they act against Christians... On the other hand, they are at a loss in front of a religion like Islam that does not clearly distinguish between the public and the private. Hence, they understand wearing the Burqa or, for that matter, any kind of obedience to she Sharia, as a private decision.

As for the precise question, Christianity is the first religion that did not bring new or special commands but contented itself with common, “pagan”, run-of-the-mill morality. The so-called “Christian morals” is none other than the Ten Commandments that are already in the Old Testament (Exodus, 20), and in other cultures. Little wonder, since they are the basic survival kit of mankind. The Burqa is a definite interpretation of Islamic Law, grounded on two verses of the Qur’an asking women to be veiled (XXIV, 31; XXXIII, 59). The problem is that a pious Muslim believes his Holy Book to have been dictated word for word by an omniscient God, who outsoars time and space. If this is the case, you have to obey without further ado. The only loophole left for interpretation will be the precise meaning of the words: how long must be the veil, how opaque, etc.?      

6) In the conclusion of your book Eccentric Culture you preached in favour of a new "Romanity", which you define as a strict separation between the spiritual and the politic and the need for roots from “Natural Law”, could you tell us more? Does Nature remind us of the reasonable way?

I hope I did not preach. I simply pointed out some elements that might help us recover what I called “Romanity”, a stance that might be the key to Europe’s success story. I was given the opportunity to delve more extensively on those legal and political topics in my “The Law of God” (2005). There, I argued that the real question is less the separation between the spiritual and the politic than the one between the spiritual and the whole realm of human action: not only politics, but individual morality, ethics, together with what ancient philosophers called “economy”: relations between husband and wife, parents and children, leaders and subordinates.

The trouble, when we mention “nature” in phrases like “natural law”, is that we more often than not mistake two concepts for one another. For us, “nature” means first what natural sciences like astronomy, physics or biology tell us about what there is. Now, mentioning “natural law” certainly does not mean that we should behave in the same way as natural beings do, still less that we should not try and modify natural processes to our advantage—what technology does every day. The concept of nature that underlies the idea of “natural law” is worlds apart from the first. It is rooted in ancient, particularly Stoic philosophy, so that it has become hardly understandable for our contemporaries, unless they have undergone a philosophical training. Perhaps we should speak in its stead of “rational law”, i.e. a law that can be discovered by human reason. Since reason defines man’s nature, we would save a great deal of the idea by means of a less misleading phrase.

There is at least a way in which nature “reminds us of the reasonable way”, to quote your very apt formula. Natural beings have their own laws—the word being taken here as designating a law of nature. This means that you can’t do anything with them if you want to keep them living. You have to sort of “respect” them, although this word is used here only as a metaphor, or as a prefiguration of what will deserve the name of “respect” between men as free and rational beings.

7) In the same book you want to rediscover the “kindness of the body”– la bonté du corps in French – what do you mean exactly by this kindness?

The French bonté means in common parlance something like “kindness”, “generosity”, etc. I took it as an awkward equivalent of “goodness”, the quality of what is good, an idea for which the French has no proper substantive.

As for the body, we live in a paradoxical situation: At first blush, we are enamoured of it. Just think of what we spend on cosmetics, fitness, now the so-called “wellness”, not to mention plastic surgery, etc. In fact, we select an extremely narrow aspect of the body: it must be young, healthy, attractive and, when it is female, for Pete’s sake not pregnant! Now, Christianity contends that the body is called to an unheard-of destiny, since it is due to experience a resurrection. The body in its whole, our history from A to Z, is reclaimed by God. Interestingly, Pagans like Celsus in the 2nd century or Porphyry in the 3rd criticized Christians by poking fun at their exaggerated “passion for the body”. They conceived of salvation in a Platonic key-tone: it consisted in being salvaged from the body, not saved with it. I must smile when I read Nietzsche’s attack on the Christians as “despising the body”...     

8) Jacques Maritain thought that “integral humanism’, un-rooted from the natural law, is “anti-human” and a denial of the person. Does this analysis fit with our situation today?

If I were to look for a far-reaching and convincing critique of atheistic humanism, I would not name Maritain. You alluded to the title of a book that he published in 1937. I read it last year and I found it rather disappointing. Father Henri de Lubac did a much better job in his The drama of atheistic humanism, written during the war and published in 1944. He does not try to refute what he calls “exclusive humanism” from the outside. Instead, he shows that its inner logic renders it self-defeating.

Today, what is wrong with exclusive humanism is not only that it can’t do justice to the person. Things have grown far worse: What is menaced is not the status of man as a personal being; it is the very existence of mankind.

In conclusion 2 questions:

9) The National Secular Society says that “supernaturalism is based upon ignorance” and assails it as the historic enemy of progress. For you, is this “historically” true?

Such statements are hopelessly muddled. At the bottom of all that, you find Auguste Comte’s idea that religion can’t explain the world as well as science does. This is very true. But who ever said that explaining the world is what religion is about? The fact that we know more and more things about nature does not prove that there is nothing else than nature.

The use of the word “progress” betrays a naive faith that no believer would share, an identification of what is new with what is good. Atomic weapons, global warming, AIDS are new phenomena. They are not exactly good things.

The common ploy of secular journalists, since the Enlightenment, has consisted of ascribing to themselves the betterment of human condition, thereby neglecting the long-term part played by Christianity in de-legitimizing slave-trade, slavery in general or torture. Think of the Pope’s ban on trial by ordeal in 1215, or of the jesuit von Spee putting a stop on the witch trials.  

10) I know you are a friend of Roger Scruton. In your search for the solution for our Society, does Beauty matter?

Calling me a “friend” of Roger Scruton is an honour that I hardly deserve: If my memory serves me right, I met him only twice, once in Warsaw, and once in Rome. “Admirer” would capture the situation more adequately. Furthermore, I’m afraid I haven’t yet watched the TV program that you are alluding to. Be that as it may, Scruton is probably right in pointing out the importance of Beauty.

Let me shed some light on the historical background. A massive fact is that beauty is not the central concept in our relationship with art any longer. It was replaced by other concepts, for instance “interesting”, “moving”, “exciting”, etc. This is a very long process whose inception can be situated in early German romanticism, in the last years of the 18th century, say, with the young Friedrich Schlegel. Contemporary works of art are seldom beautiful, not because artists are incompetent, but because they don’t want to produce beautiful things. The mere fact that one is talking of beauty nowadays has a reactionary ring about it that renders it provocative.

To be sure, we won’t heal the wounds of our societies by building bigger museums or that sort of thing. The deeper issue is the relationship between Beauty, Truth and Being, which verges on metaphysics. Technically speaking, the question is whether “transcendental” properties of things, like the three that I have just mentioned, are convertible into each other. In other words: is Beauty the expression of the deepest nature of what is? Or is it only, on the one hand, a trick, a colourful mask that conceals a cruel Truth—say, struggle for life, will to power, etc — or, on the other hand, something than can give us pleasure by tickling our sentiments?

The point is whether we are still able to recover a sense of the beauty of the world, and that this beauty is not cheating, that it points to an intrinsic goodness of Being. Unless we can do that, we will be at a loss how to answer the question: why should there be anything and not nothing? In the teeth of all appearance, this is not an Academic issue. In the long run, we need a positive answer if the human adventure is to go on.

Rémi Brague is professor of Arabic and Religious philosophy at the Sorbonne. He is the author of The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea. Jerome di Costanzo is a French writer, analyst and journalist now living in Yorkshire. He specialises in politics, religion and philosophy. This interview has been reproduced from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | atheism, secularism, secularity
Copyright © Jerome di Costanzo and Rémi Brague . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

Follow MercatorNet
Facebook
Twitter
Newsletters
Sections and Blogs
Harambee
PopCorn
Conjugality
Careful!
Family Edge
Sheila Reports
Reading Matters
Demography Is Destiny
Bioedge
Conniptions (the editorial)
Connecting
Information
our ideals
our People
Mercator who?
partner sites
audited accounts
donate
New Media Foundation
Suite 212
75 Archer Street
Chatswood NSW 2067
Australia

editor@mercatornet.com
+61 2 9007 1187

© New Media Foundation 2014 | powered by Encyclomedia | designed by Elleston