“A kind of political religion”

Speaking of the French Revolution, it is somewhat odd that it was not the altars of the Fatherland, the cult of the Nation, or the revolutionary oaths and feasts that reminded Condorcet of a political religion, but the way the Constitution was treated by public education plans. The word was mentioned twice in his Cinq memoires sur l’instruction publique (1791). The first passage gives some vague criteria for the religious analogy:

“It has been said that the teaching of the constitution of each country should be part of national education there. This is true, no doubt, if we speak of it as a fact; if we just explain it and expound it; if, in teaching it, we limit ourselves to saying: This is the constitution established in the state and to which all citizens owe obedience. But if we say that it must be taught as a doctrine conforming to the principles of universal reason, or excite in its favor a blind enthusiasm which renders citizens incapable of judge her; if they are told: This is what you must worship and believe, then it is a kind of political religion that we want to create; it’s a chain that we prepare for the spirits, and we violate freedom in its most sacred rights, under the pretext of learning to cherish it. The goal of instruction is not to make men admire legislation ready-made, but to enable them to appreciate and correct it.”

The second passage is more of a historical argument:

“Let the example of England become a lesson for other peoples: there, a superstitious respect for the constitution or for certain laws to which they attribute national prosperity, a servile worship for a few maxims devoted to the interest of the rich and powerful classes are part of education, they are maintained by those who long for fortune or power, they have become a kind of political religion which makes it almost impossible to make progress towards perfecting the constitution and laws.”

In other words, the first modern suspect for being a “political religion” was something as apparently harmless as a sort of constitutionalism or legal traditionalism. This line of argument was not even rediscovered until the 20th century. Condorcet’s immediate posterity was more concerned with another “religious” threat: that of democracy. But more on that next time.

Condorcet Marie

Did the French Revolution have a secular religion?

Today is the 231th anniversary of the French Revolution, which makes it appropriate to ask once again whether there was anything like a secular religion in France after 1789. Religion there was, of course: first a reshaped, nationalized Catholicism, then a cult of the Fatherland, then worship of the Goddess of Reason, and finally that of the Supreme Being.

All these, however, were not “secular” in any sense of the word. No one had to “unmask” the real, religious nature of revolutionary ideology, for it proudly and openly declared itself religious. The altars, the vows, the feasts, the sanctuary of “all Gods” – these have never been secular in any sense of the word. It’s hard to see why Condorcet thought that calling the new plans of public education a “sort of political religion” was a denunciation. It was a religion indeed, and all revolutionary ideologues gladly acknowledged it was.

Those who thought that anything like a secular revolution may ever exist were completely mistaken. The bigger the revolution is, the more cults are needed. That is why it is almost impossible to tell how many deities were invented during the years of revolutionary frenzy. The Nation, the Fatherland, Reason, Virtues, Equality, Liberty, Humanity, Progress, and so on… None of which had any more reality than a Zeus or a Quetzalcoatl.

Which is exactly why it is a total misunderstanding to speak of anything this-worldly, secular, or merely political here. Just take a small tour at the Panthéon in Paris. And compare what you see to the allegedly “theocratic” visions of the counterrevolutionaries, for example that of the Temple at the end of Louis de Bonald’s Théorie de puovoir. Perhaps you can tell the difference; I have to admit I cannot.

Accidental references

The most interesting manifestations of “secular religion” talk are not those that make an explicit and detailed comparison between so-called “secular” and so-called “religious” ideas. Accidental references to gender ideology and identity politics that have become “a new religion, if you like” (Douglas Murray); or to democracy as “a God that failed” (Hans-Hermann Hoppe); or to the “sola scriptura” approach of constitutional originalism (Adrian Vermeule) are perhaps more telling than any full-flegded theory of secular religions. For what these betray is a profound uncertainty about the separation of the religious and the secular. Yes, we can say that all these are nothing more than metaphors. But why are we so quick to use such metaphors if we are convinced that the two spheres are obviously different?

In other words, an in-depth analysis of “accidental” or “metaphorical” examples of this kind may lead to results that could be just as relevant as what we conclude from our investigations of the academic literature on secular religions.

Secular = non-religious?

As for dictionary entries: the Cambridge English Dictionary defines “secular” as “not having any connection with religion.” In the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “not connected with spiritual or religious matters.” In Macmillan, “not religious or not connected with religion.” In Collins, “things that have no connection with religion,” and many further examples could be cited. In ordinary usage, therefore, a “secular religion” would mean a “religion that has no connection with religion” or a “not religious religion.” The vague reference to “spiritual or religious matters” is worthy of more profound investigation (into the difference between “spiritual”, “religious”, “transcendent”, “supranatural”, and other similar words), but I will return to this issue later.

A curious exception is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary in which “secular” is “not overtly or specifically religious.” By a closer look, this definition, which seems only a weaker version of the ones just cited, in fact contains a very strong statement (if we take it at face value): that what is called “secular” is not necessarily non-religious, only covertly or non-specifically so. Secular religion theorists would no doubt find this approach appealing, but the same dictionary also says that “secular” is “of or relating to the worldly or temporal”, which once again leads to an inconsistency, because “worldly” – according to the same dictionary – is “of, relating to, or devoted to this worlds and its pursuits rather than to religion or spiritual affairs.” So, despite all attempts to find more and more complex definitions, secular religion theorists are still left with the notion of a religion which is devoted to other things than religion (or “spiritual affairs”, whatever the latter means).

At least if they rely on dictionary definitions. In academic literature, the definitions of  “secular” put more emphasis on the historical use of the word, which seems to offer a way out of the contradiction. Since “secular” comes from the Latin saeculum, “century” or “age”, the longest time span of a human life (Holford-Strevens 2013), its original meaning does not necessarily exclude all reference to things that are nowadays called religious. In this case, secular would mean something “temporal”, so the contrast is not between the secular and the religious, but between what is connected to time and what is not. Thus (unless one insists on equating the latter with the religious), speaking of “secular religion” would not be a contradiction in terms, only a specific form of religion, provided that ancient authors made such a distinction between temporal and non-temporal religions. The fact is, of course, that they did not, and when a Christian author like Augustine of Hippo used the Latin words of saeculum and saecularis, he did it exactly to separate worldly or terrestrial things (the city of man) from the city of God, something that most of us today would associate with the realm of religion (Beaumont–Eder–Mendieta 2018, 3).

So – even though Augustine did not have the same concept of religion as we do today – the contradiction remains there. The fact that the Middle Ages again used the terms “secular” and “religious” in a different sense will not help to eliminate the contradiction, either. Every medievalist knows that saecularis meant the opposite of “ecclesiastical” in general, or “monastic” (also called religiosus) in a more specific sense (Niermeyer 1976, 951). A secular religion – if there had existed such a word – would therefore have meant something like a non-ecclesiastical religion, which was unimaginable in the medieval context, or once again a non-religious religion which would have been an obvious logical contradiction.

Let me emphasize once more that I am not occupied here with the constantly changing definitions of words like “secular” and “religion” in themselves, but with their relation to each other. What is true today seems to have been the same throughout history: “secular” was always an opposite of “religious” and moving beyond the oxymoron would only be possible if we took “secular” in one historical meaning, and “religion” in another. Apart from the terminological confusion that such an approach would cause, it is also true that no one writing on secular religions relies on such dubious maneuvering. Regardless of how medieval and modern texts define the secular and the religious, secular means non-religious, and religious means non-secular in both contexts.

In a similar way, no academic literature on secularization would be possible without defining the secular in opposition to religious consciousness, behavior, and institutions (Wilson 1982, 149); as not connected to religion as “faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality” (Taylor 2007, 1); as an alternative to religion (Bruce 2009, 146); or as “a realm or reality differentiated from the religious” (Casanova 2011, 54); but this is perhaps already overstating the obvious. Whether one takes dictionary definitions, historical accounts, or analytical classifications as a starting point, it remains true that “secular religion” is an oxymoron, the worst possible choice when describing self-professedly non-religious ideas, actions, and institutions as being similar to ones that are more commonly – albeit vaguely – called religious.  

Sixty-six rituals, six rites, and three liturgies

I didn’t think of punishment as a secular religion until now. But re-reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish made me realize how often he uses words like “rite”, “ritual”, or “liturgy” when describing the historical forms of torture and public execution. It may well be that all these are figures of speech only, but it’s still worthy of consideration whether anyone would agree that ritual or liturgy are enough in themselves to define something as “religious.” I, of course, don’t think that anything offered by anyone so far is enough, but others may think otherwise. Or, if someone thinks that punishment does have another side, an object of worship, I wonder what that would be.

A non-secular age

Does it sound familiar?

“It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that’s arbitrary withouth being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition. (…) It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there is a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare (…) and all because you are frightened of four words: ‘He was made Man.’ “

Could be the motto of any meditations on non-secularization.

A few more words on terminology

After so much pondering on terminology, let me add that not every reference to secular/religious parallelisms is to be found under the label of “political theology”, “political religion”, or “secular religion”. Many authors are more inventive than that. “Laicized mysticism”, “secularized eschatology”, “immanentization of the eschaton”, “secularized version of sectarian perfectionism” and many others are also on the menu. And let us not forget more value-burdened terms like “quasi-religion”, “pseudo-religion”, “ersatz religion”, and “Religionsersatz” (the last two are not necessarily the same). My greater sympathy, however, is with those works that don’t attempt to separate one sort of (secular, political, laicized, immanent, quasi, pseudo, ersatz and who knows what other non-religious) religions from real ones, but call all these RELIGIONS without an adjective.

Provided, of course, that one has to speak of religions at all. This is what I’m not entirely convinced of. But to explain my aversions I’ll have to say a few words on the definition of religion later on. Until then, for those who speak Hungarian, I will also tackle the terminological issues at an online discussion next Wednesday.


Our faith in science

For weeks now, I’ve been reading that politicians should give way to scientists. That laypeople who don’t even know what a virus is should stop arguing about it. That there are no options but to have faith in science. I really didn’t feel like drawing the too easy secular religion analogy here, but looks like someone else did it.

The Physician as God, Angel, Man, and Devil
Source: Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. 

The advantage of using bad words

As it has by now become clear, words like “political theology”, “political religion”, and “secular religion” are all problematic in one way or another. (And I could name a few more.) The whole conceptual chaos surrounding such terms is no accident, however. It all follows from the authors’ inability to define religion, and thereby their similar inability to say what secular is. This is why almost everyone relies on their own favorite formula, and then go into long and complicated explanations on how something that’s religious is at the same time secular, and vice versa.

There are nevertheless two advantages of this mishmash. The first is that it calls attention to the irreparable vagueness of the concept of religion. (With which I will deal later.) The second is that it teaches something important about modern ideologies. Namely, that there is always some absolute at the heart of all ideologies. I would not call it “religious”, of course. “Religious”, as I said many times, obfuscates more than it clarifies. But I would be happy to see ideologues embarrassed by their own inability to tell the difference between “religious” and “secular” absolutes.

Is “political religion” a better term?

After dealing so much with the problems of “political theology”, let’s turn to the term “political religion”. Although the most famous author who used it was Eric Voegelin in 1938, its first mention probably goes back to Condorcet in 1791. Moreover, Condorcet used it in very much the same way as we do today: a political ideology that shares some similarities with “religion”. (in Condorcet’s case, as in most other cases, “religion” was identified with Christianity, of course. Knowingly or unknowingly.) To be sure, Condorcet meant this as an insult: he attempted to show that some revolutionary ideas (about public instruction) were no better than the religious ones they wished to replace. There was no full comparison, however, only a few scattered remarks on both being dogmatic and prescribing an obligatory creed for the citizen.

Voegelin was more nuanced in this sense. Although there is no mention of Carl Schmitt in his Die Politischen Religionen, it seems that the term was chosen to include practical and institutional aspects as well, not only theoretical ones as in Schmitt’s Politische Theologie. This is certainly a good point, the problem lies elsewhere. First, Voegelin also fails to make a clear distinction between “real” and “political” religions. Although he uses “inner-worldly” instead of “secularized”, it soon turns out that the inner-worldly or political religions of Nazism of Fascism also include “spiritual” elements like the spirit of the People (Volksgeist) or the mystical “objective will” of the leader (volontá obiettiva). So, while Voegelin avoids the explicit error of mentioning “secular religions” he nevertheless brings back the same oxymoron in another form.

It is also important to add that because of Voegelin’s focus on Nazism and Fascism the term “political religion” is still mostly associated with totalitarian regimes. This is no logical necessity, but we have seen that in political theology / political religion / secular religion discourse there is little logic, anyway.