Although I’ve written many times before on the concepts of “political theology”, “political religion”, and “secular religion”, some people still keep asking me about the exact definition of those terms and about a comprehensive intraductory work to the topic. The truth is, however, that I know of no such comprehensive introduction.
Works on political theology do exist, of course, either in the sense of Carl Schmitt’s “secularized theological concepts” (a formula that he himself abandoned later on) or in the more traditional sense of political theories derived from theological ones. This terminological ambiguity already indicates the impossibility of writing any general introduction to the topic of political theologies.
Political religion, on the other hand, is a term that Condorcet proposed in the 18th century and Eric Voegelin popularized in the 20th. Yet again, Voegelin himself gave up his own term later on, and even today, the best works on so-called political religions speak not of “political religions,” but rather about “politics as religion” or the “sacralization of politics” (see Emilio Gentile).
On secular religion more generally speaking, we have Hans Kelsen’s work on Secular Religion, written in the 1960’s; this was, however, a wholescale rejection of all such secular/religious comparisons, and therefore not something that could introduce anyone to the topic. It was rather something of an “extroduction”, a piece that Kelsen himself withdrew from publication at the time, and was only published a few years ago.
So the short answer is that no author has ever been satisfied with their own terminology, and practically no monograph exists on political theology, political religion, or secular religion in a general sense. That is why I’m writing the present proposal for my current publisher, and that is why it takes so long.
The nineteenth century was perhaps the last when philosophers could openly declare that belief in democracy and equality was indeed a belief, not even a completely harmless one. As John Stuart Mill wrote in his On Representative Government (1861):
The American institutions have imprinted strongly on the American mind that any one man (with a white skin) is as good as any other; and it is felt that this false creed is nearly connected with some of the more unfavourable points in American character. It is not small mischief that the constitution of any country should sanction this creed; for the belief in it, whether express or tacit, is almost as detrimental to moral and intellectual excellence as any effect which most forms of government can produce.
Let’s read the passage carefully, though. What Mills says is NOT that the creed is “false” because it declares that men and women, or people with white and black skin are equal. Quite to the contrary: it is false (or self-contradictory) because it fails to live up to its own premises when it comes to issues of race and gender; and false (or irrational) because its idea of equality ignores obvious differences in people’s moral and intellectual capabalities.
Being an “elitist” (as Mill and other “politico-theological” critics of democracy are often called) does not necessarily mean that they were, at the same time, sexists or racists. It was exactly their worries about prevailing majorities that led them to reject a purely majoritarian idea (or even religion) of democracy. A few lines down, Mill explicitly argues for women’s suffrage:
All human beings have the same interest in good government; the welfare of all is alike affected by it, and they have equal need of voice in it to secure their share of its benefits. If there be any difference,women require it more than men, since, being physically weaker, they are more dependent on law and society for protection. Mankind have long since abandoned the only premises which will support the conclusion that women ought not to have votes.
Should anyone make the objection that this belief in women’s rights also sounds like a “creed”, I readily admit it does. I’ve never said that so-called “secular beliefs” are bad in themselves; only that they are what they are: beliefs and not assertions of scientific “truths” or historical “facts.” When it comes to principles and values, we always have to choose, without pretending that our choice is determined by anything else than our belief in something higher then ourselves.
For more on the pro-minority traits of the elitist tradition see my next post.
As Alexis de Tocqueville already observed, the idea of popular sovereignty hovered over the entire political system of the United States, or, in other words, the people ruled its political world as God ruled the universe. Tocqueville, however, knew very well that this popular deity was not the “people” itself but its current majority, and there was no good answer to the question why such a constantly changing, temporary phenomenon as the will of the majority should be taken as an objective fact. The “omnipotence” of the majority, its benevolence, and the infallibility of its decisions are nevertheless treated as dogmas in democratic thought: even if the majority sometimes seems to err, it is always the fault of bad advisors, and not of the sovereign itself. Let us remark as well that such divine attributes (omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) are not “religious” concepts, but the concepts of Christian and certain other monotheist theologies, even if this theistic framework is so obviously synonymous with “religious” for Tocqueville as it was for all other authors mentioned earlier.
Tocqueville’s critique of democratic theology (though he never used the term as such) established a long tradition in Western thought. John Stuart Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government in 1859 spoke of the “false creed” of American democracy, by which he meant the unprovable dogma of the people’s equality, especially with regard to voting rights. Herbert Spencer’s The Man versus the State in 1884 also criticized the representative system as a the expression of popular will: “The great political superstition of the past was the divine right of kings. The great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments. The oil of anointing seems unawares to have dripped from the head of the one on to the heads of the many, and given sacredness to them also and to their decrees.”
Gaetano Mosca‘s 1896 Elementi di scienza politica drew a similar analogy between monarchies and representative democratic governments:
“A conscious observer would be obliged to confess that, if no one has ever seen the authentic document by which the Lord empowered certain privileged persons or families to rule his people on his behalf, neither can it be maintained that a popular election, however liberal the suffrage may be, is ordinarily the expression of the will of the people, or even of the will of the majority of the people.”
Vilfredo Pareto’s Trattato di sociologia generale of 1916 also spoke of a “democratic religion” which emerged very much in the same way as the Christian religion had in the first centuries of our era: “The two phenomena present many profoundly significant analogies.” The analogy is thus once again between Christianity and democratic thought, which has its own dogmatic structure inherited from Rousseau, but also notably different from the original direct democratic ideal: “This game is all to the liking of Rousseau’s admirers, and they go on playing at it. Still again X is modified, and once the opinion of the majority (?) of the electors, it now becomes the opinion of the majority of those elected. Such the evolution of one of the sublimest dogmas of the democratic religion.”
The main problem with representative democracy, however, is not that it distorts the “will of the people”, but that there is nothing to represent strictly speaking:
“We must not be led astray by the term ‘people,’ which seems to designate a concrete thing. Of course the sum of the inhabitants of a country might be called a ‘people,’ and a ‘people’ in such a case is a real, concrete thing. But only in virtue of an abstraction wholly foreign to reality can such an aggregate be regarded as a person possessing a will and the power to express it.”
Speaking of democratic religion or faith has remained regular until the mid-twentieth century. Ralph Henry Gabriel’s 1940 The Course of American Democratic Thought stated that “The persistence of the democratic faith in an age of science is a phenomenon of significance. The essence of the formula is faith. Not one of its doctrines can be proved in any scientific sense.” While the non-scientific character of democratic faith means that its free, rational, and basically good individuals are just as different from empirical human beings as Rousseau’s, Marx’s, or Hitler’s people, Gabriel kept on using terms like “social faith” or “culture religion”, suggesting that democratic faith was something secular, as compared to real – in this case, once again Christian – belief. Others like Crane Brinton also compared the non-scientific character of democratic faith to that of Christian theology:
“Democracy, in short, is in part a system of judgments inconsistent with what scientists hold to be true. This inconsistency would not create difficulties – or at least would not create some of the difficulties it now creates – were the democratic able to say that his kingdom is not of this world, able to say that his truth is not the kind that is in the least tested by the scientist, any more than the truth of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is tested by the chemical analysis of the bread and wine. Such a solution of the democrat’s intellectual quandary is not a happy one, but it is not altogether inconceivable. Democracy may become a genuinely transcendental faith, in which belief is not weakened by lack of correspondence between the propositions it lays down and the facts of life on this earth. (…) In short, democracy may be able to take its promised heaven out of this world, and put it in the world of ritual performed, of transcendental belief, or vicarious satisfactions of human wants, may keep it an ideal not too much sullied by the contrast with the spotted reality.”
Brinton mentions the same divine attributes of the democratic people as Gabriel (freedom, rationality, and goodness), and even derives “democratic faith” from the “Enlightenment faith,” which he, however, also describes as one that “admits no supernatural above the natural”, despite the fact that its beliefs can never be proven scientifically.
In 1974, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism also detected an analogy between the dogmas, rituals, and institutions of Christianity (or, more precisely, Catholicism, so once again not of religion in general) and those of democracy, which, however, did not prevent him from calling the latter a Religionsersatz, again without explaining what the distinctive features of real and ersatz religions would be . Since then, it has become perhaps less fashionable to criticize democracy as a theological or religious system, but there are books like Patrick Deneen’s 2005 Democratic Faith, which realize that the deification of democracy (a striking example of which is the statue of the Goddess of Democracy on Peking’s Tienanmen Square in 1989) has nothing to do with existing democracies, only with an idea of democracy that today’s democratic societies can never really grow up to. As for the idealized people of democracy, this is also a product of imagination in both deliberative and agonistic models of democracy, which may be approached, but will never become exactly the same as the currently existent sum of citizens. A full democracy is only achievable with a fully rational or ab ovo democratic citizenship, but the advent of such a people is an article of faith, and not something that has been proven by anyone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I didn’t think of punishment as a secular religion until now. But re-reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishmade 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.
“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.
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.