Religion: A Philosophical and Historical Overview

Religion, Solidarity and Power


  1. A Philosophical & Historical Overview

In the ancient world, politics was the means of expressing the will of God and/or the nature of man. The principles were given. The issue was to interpret that will and/or nature; there was no separation of the religious and the secular. Further, horizontal solidarity and the vertical distribution of power were complementary. One enjoyed solidarity within one’s allotted class and a stable order as long as the “natural” distribution of power was recognized.

The enlightenment changed all that. Instead of the will of God or the nature of man, the foundation became the will of man and man’s mastery of nature in the construction of the social and political order. Nature was no longer regarded as a problem of custodial care. Humans saw themselves as entitled to an unbridled use of labour and thought allowing an unhampered exploitation of nature and its conversion into art-i-facts and possessions. The unnatural laws of the economic market provided the governing norms, not divine sanction. The inversion that made human will primary was accompanied by the separation of the secular and the religious, the separation of state and church. Politics became an issue of possibility, of change. Even for conservatives, the issue was and remained who could manage that change to best maintain stability. In the process, art itself was revolutionized; it became a construct rather than an imitation of reality or the icons of a holy world. Self-creation replaced mimesis as the modus operandi.

This was as true of the sciences as the humanities. Science was not discovering “natural laws,” but patterns and laws that best explained nature. Science itself became a process, a methodology of providing a disciplined way to sort out competing claims or constructs. Religion was relegated to the realm of personal belief and faith while science became the expression of reason and art the expression of the imagination unleashed even from the boundaries of nature.

Kant wanted to give a boundary to the natural world to make room for faith. Further, epistemology, knowing the world itself, was based on universal premises that were preconditions for any scientific knowledge rather than products of science. Thus, in the realm of science, the proposition that every event has a cause is not a scientific conclusion, but a universal principle without which there could be no science whatsoever. In the realm of practical as distinct from pure reason, of prescription rather than description, the universal premise that one should treat every other human as an end and not as a means was not a moral proposition itself, but the necessary condition of having and living in a moral world at all.

Hegel turned Kant on his head and inside out. Religion, the path of spirit, was to be found in the development of science, even in the development of classical and ancient belief and thought that brought us to the realm of reason. But the realm of reason that did not recognize the historical revelations of spirit, the premise of the enlightenment based on the separation of religion and the state, of faith and science, of unreason and unreason, was to be discovered in the reason of irrationality and the irrationality of reason, of the quest for mastery over self and an Other in the quest for recognition. With the re-emergence of the realm of spirit and the realm of nature, of faith and of reason, the seeds of the post-enlightenment had been sewn. The highest achievement and realization was not the realm of reason, but the realm of spirit, in what we now refer to as post-secularism that Schewel has dissected so well in his writings (2014).

In politics, reason was embodied in and expressed through the state; the state was supposed to be the highest expression of reason. Spirit was expressed through the nation and the sinews that kept people of the same nation wedded to common values. The spirit of a nation trumped even the commanding heights of the state. In the end, the state was not there simply to serve instrumental reason, which in turn served the functioning of the state. It was the expression and protector of that national spirit. That vision differed radically from Fichte for whom the spirit of a nation became the ultimate measure; for Hegel, the spirit of a nation was bounded by reason and subjected to its critique.

In this nascent postmodern vision, man was no longer viewed as having an intrinsic nature but, instead, was viewed as a “product of his time” and a person through whom that time received expression and articulation. In this sense, in history we began witnessing the marriage – not the merger – of traditional religion and the secular which finally characterizes the nascent stage of the new post-enlightenment order that we are all living through.

Instead of reading a sacred text: “In the beginning of God’s creating the heaven and the earth,” instead of reading a scientific treatise about the objectification and evolution of the natural world independent of any spirit, the sprit was viewed as a place where this new non-natural evolution took place as spirit tries to recognize itself in his or her own actions. The most significant element in this process of self-recognition of oneself, and oneself at one with the world, was language. In the classical age, God said and there was. Language, whether used by God to create the world or by humans to identify different species, was the vehicle for the world coming to be and to be known.

That shifted with the enlightenment. Language was reduced to describing rather than determining the world. The job came to be checking the degree to which our words corresponded with the “facts” out there, and then whether our categories and our laws did. Instead of Truth being determined by an all-knowing, all powerful deity, the world decided what was and what was not true. However, in our current post-modern world, God doesn’t decide, nor we as the instrument for God’s will. Neither does the world decide. Practice, convention and custom make that determination. In that case, the realm of the political becomes much more about the boundaries of practice and belief acceptable to the rest of the community. We observe the birth of secular religions.

In 1912, secularism was consecrated as the official religion of France (Baubérot[1] 1990; 1994; 1998; 2007a; 2007b). The notion of secular (laïque) of course emerged much earlier, even before the French Revolution. In the gestation period, laïcité consisted of the gradual disassociation of state institutions from the Roman Catholic Church. In his blog on 29 September, Baubérot reiterated his long-held view that, “since Durkheim, a sociological literature shows that there is a social sacred, which may very well be secular.” He has also differentiated between laïcité as political secularism and secularization which entails the protection of individual political choice. Even though Jean Baubérot, to the best of my knowledge, never directly called laïcité or political secularism a religion, his writings on laïcité are invaluable in understanding it as a religion.

Quebec more recently has tried to follow the example of France. The English world was more tolerant. In Canada as a whole in 2015, the target was the niqab being worn when one joined and pledged allegiance to the modern extended family, the state. In that part of the country much more influenced by French beliefs and practices, much more determined to define the national family as Quebeçois rather than Canadian, one would be banned from wearing the niqab when conducting any transaction between the public and the state. The prohibition would not simply be restricted to when one swore an oath of citizenship.

The fewer these matters affected – 200 school girls in France, two Muslim Canadians who insisted they wear the niqab for the portion of the ceremony of oaths that was public – the greater the importance seemed in the life of the nation and the greater the public controversy over the practice. Those who swore their allegiance to the secular religion of human rights labelled such bans intolerable and a challenge to human rights and freedom. But those who sought to define the re-marriage of the secular and the religion in more classical terms of rites rather than rights, seemed to have the greater sense of what is missing in the modern enlightened world. They appeared more sensitive to the epidemic of alienation, to what it meant to define an individual separate from his or her community as the foundation for society.

The religious secular battles took place over symbols and practices about covering the head and/or the face. However, since we had already left the historical period of modernity when the world would decide which secular religious practice would prevail, the attitude of the community rather than a realm of universal rights and freedoms would determine the outcome, not via a court of law which consistently ruled in favour of a secularism based on the sacred state of human rights and protection of the individual. Secularization itself became a secular religion which divorced itself from religion altogether and was consecrated by the courts. I call that secular religion founded on the sacred priority of human rights and humanitarianism HRH secularism.

However, in the court of public opinion in deep need of costumes and colours and uniforms to decide the fracture lines that divide one community from another, the secular political religion became a variety of versions of laïcité. Political state clerics took over responsibility from church clerics for determining acceptable public costuming in the name of the separation of church from state. By relegating morality to the private sphere, the public arena allowed, no, was encouraged to become the realm for manipulation and mastery of the instruments of power and authority. I call this competing secular religion MMP secularism.

If we speak, rather than having our actions governed by universal natural rights and freedoms, if the words we speak, especially the oaths we swear, cause us to determine the beliefs we have, then subjectivity reigns and is reified by modes of costuming that declare the primary community to which we owe our allegiance, whether that costuming be the colours and styles of a biker gang, the style of dress of one sect in a high school versus another, the costumes of sports fans and their idols, or the minimal standards of dress of a whole nation. So just when the language of rights and freedoms had ostensibly achieved legal supremacy as the epitome of modernity, it was being undermined by the new wave of post-modernity and all in the name of “conserving” our values. In this new world that was being created by defenders of the old “old” world, reality was what we made through our language, and not by a reality independent of the words we use, the language we adopt and the practices we deem to be “sacred”.

In the Greek classical world, an outcome was best determined by those who argued best. In the classical Hebrew world, it was determined by those who interpreted text best. In the modern enlightenment, those practices were determined by a natural world independent of ourselves. But in the post-modern world, conventions were ordained by the will of the community. “We” determine who we are and nowhere and no time is that determination made clearer than when “we” invite “they” to join our community, to join our family. MMP secularism tries to bury modernity and make “we” rather than the transcendental “I” of modernity the trump card for self-determination.

We determine how we should be responsible and to whom we should be responsible. That responsibility was no longer determined by God or by the nature of who we are as humans. For that “nature” itself was subject to the self-determination of the “we”. The criterion for determining the boundaries of the world and its subdivisions was no longer to be determined by its adequacy in describing the world – whether that adequacy be determined by a pseudo-biological classification of race or of our nature as human beings as a whole or even by our nature as sentient beings in a world where even animals have rights – but by ourselves as unfettered divine creators. The height of irony in the contemporary world is that this vision of the world has its greatest proponents in those who contend that they live in a traditional world, a world where a non-secular world ostensibly still reigns supreme. That, of course, is an exemplification of the ironic nature of human self-transformation á la Richard Rorty.

No longer is the core determinant an external divine or even natural force, nor a divine core being within each and every one of us, but what we believe according to the latest opinion polls. Some people think that the mushrooming of opinion polls in the last forty years was about giving us greater knowledge of the external world and the society in which we live, or, at least, an understanding of trends so that our choices can be strategic. Though on the surface they are both of these, at a much deeper level they are the new sacred rites for instantiating the process by which “we” are defined as the source of that which is sacred in defining ourselves.

The “we” that decides and the decision about who belongs to and constitutes the “we” becomes the most sacred act of all. And it is most often done, not in any direct challenge to the sacred foundation of modernity, the nature and rights of the individual, but by those who claim to be most rooted in tradition. Further, the result is not the greater reification of that tradition, but the consequence that the sense of ourselves as fundamentally protean is reinforced. Polls simply and most fundamentally tell and instill in us that we can no longer define ourselves in reference to one pole rather than its opposite, but in terms of the nature of fluid polls. We have come to recognize that we are quarks, perceived from one view as bundles of energy that completely fill the space available or, from an opposite perspective, as solid particles that concentrate the energy into a compact space of the individual entity. Post-modernity, unlike one of the oldest traditions, has still not been able to integrate the heh of openness and self-transformation with the yud that together constitute the sacred deity Yahweh.

Twentieth century philosophy has been described as the era in which Aristotelian insights into language as a mode of equivocation and the era in which language was the most instrumental of tools and the medium through which we could best reach out to the truth of the given world, has moved us, and we have moved ourselves, into an era where language itself defined that world and defined the “we” who defined who the “we” is. Language was not just a medium. Rather, the medium had become the message – and we all recognize the source of that insight. Just as the radical divide between the secular and the religious characteristic of modernity was now being overthrown, so was the radical divide between the self and the object, between the self and the other, between oneself as an actor in the world and the transcendental self which allowed that self’s thoughts to cohere and its practices to be rooted in a continuing identity. “I” had become “we”.

In the terms of Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest nineteenth century prophet of the contemporary age and the most reactionary advocate against it in reverence for the individual, we are the “mobile army of metaphors”. We are not simply the community, but the crowd and the mob. We are at heart protean, which means that we have no heart at all. Nor head for that matter or even gut. We are the collectivity of ones that make the we that makes ourselves.

Next 3. Religion, Solidarity and Power in the Context of the Symposium

[1] A specialist in the sociology of religions, Baubérot was the founder of the sociology of secularism and has held chairs in both fields. He not only understands religions, but also understands important aspects of secularism as a de facto religion. Of the 19 members of the Stasi Commission in France that studied the headscarf issue, a commission that included a number of prominent French philosophers, he was the only member who abstained from banning headscarves in French public schools, but, in fact, he was a supporter of laïcité and really either wanted headscarves to be differentiated from bandanas which showed the neck or “ostentatious” to be defined, not in terms of the size or prominence of the religious attire or symbols, but only as a way of defining items used for proselytism, as he claimed that they disrupted the educational process and put pressure on other students.


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