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.
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.
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.
Another problem with political theology stems from Carl Schmitt’s own classification of political ideologies. If the conceptual analogy between theological and political concepts is indeed so complete as he suggests, it becomes extremely difficult to make a distinction between “genuine” theology, and merely “secular” or “political” theologies.
Schmitt’s own examples are also of little help in this regard. Continental conservatism can hardly be called secular, since it preserves the idea of a divinely appointed sovereign, and the “conservative authors of the counterrevolution” were definitely “theists” (Schmitt 1985, 37). It remains therefore unclear why this sort of political theology is not genuinely, only analogically “religious”.
On the other hand, the problem with liberalism is that it lacks the concept of personal sovereignty (Schmitt 1985, 60), and since Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty is evidently personal, it is hard to tell why an ideology which lacks this central concept should be called theological even in a “secular” sense.
In the case of socialism, Schmitt’s own terminology becomes a source of confusion. If socialism is the political analogy of atheism (Schmitt 1985, 63), then it does not only lack the aforementioned concept of sovereignty, but could also be called “secularized atheism”, which would sound almost senseless – an atheist atheism, in contrast to religious atheism – if Schmitt admitted that this was the case.
All in all, the very existence of different ideologies and not just one “modern theory of the state” raises enormous difficulties for the original Schmittian version of political theology already.
One of the most confusing things about political theology is that it’s used in at least two senses. One is the Schmittian sense of “political concepts as secularized theological concepts.” This stands fairly close to the idea of political ideologies as secular religions. The other sense is “theology with a political purpose or meaning,” which is something else altogether. In the first case, we start with political ideologies and arrive at their hidden theological presuppositions. We “unveil” them, so to speak, in order reveal their real nature. In the second case we follow the opposite route. We start with explicit theological principles, and arrive at political ones. You might also say that Schmitt’s “political theology A” is about politicians playing the priest without knowing it. “Political theology B”, on the other hand, is about priests playing the politician.
The only thing left to understand is why most handbooks, thematic journals and conferences mix up these two.
One of the better books written on political or secular religions is still Emilio Gentile’s Politics as Religion (2006).
The best part of Gentile’s approach is to speak of the “sacralization of politics”, which is the exact opposite of the Schmittian concept of politics as “secularized theology.” At least it acknowledges that terms like “secular”, “secularized”, or “secularization” are extremely hard to define. Should he be ready to say that a “sacralized politics” is no different from any other forms of the sacred, this would be a great achievement.
The problem is that toward the end of his book he falls back on the usual distinction between “a religion of politics” and religion per se, without reflecting on the non-empirical character of both political and religious absolutes. Moreover, his definition of the “religion of politics” has very little to do with the definition of “religion” in general. It rather sounds as a description of apocalyptic fanaticism.
“A religion of politics manifests itself when a political movement or regime
a. Consecrates the primacy of a secular collective entity by placing it at the center of a set of beliefs and myths that define the meaning and the ultimate purpose of the social existence and prescribe the principles for discriminating between good and evil;
b. Formalizes this concept in an ethical and social code of commandments that binds the individual to the sacralized entity and imposes loyalty, devotion, and even willingness to lay down one’s life;
c. Considers its followers to be community of the elect and interprets its political action as a messianic function to fulfill a mission of benefit to all humanity;
d. Creates a political liturgy for the adoration of the sacralized collective entity through the cult of the person who embodies it, and through the mythical and symbolic representation of its sacred history – a regular ritual evocation of events and deeds performed over a period of time by the community of the elect.”
(Emilio Gentile: Politics as Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, 138-139.)
If this – otherwise accurate – description of totalitarian millenarism (but not of politics and religion) is the best that one of the best scholars can come up with, what do we expect from others?
As almost everyone almost immediately recognizes, the term “secular religion” is an oxymoron. No matter how we define religion, “secular” can hardly mean anything else than “non-religious”, so secular religions are supposed to be “non-religious religions”, which is a contradiction in terms. You don’t have to be a Hans Kelsen to understand just that much. (See his Secular Religion: A Polemic against the Misinterpretation of Modern Social Philosophy, Science and Politics as “New Religions.” Wien‐New York: Springer, 2012.)
Since defining an oxymoronic term is by definition impossible, all that remains for us is to analyze its rhetorical use, and that’s what the present project aims to do in the first place. So before anyone becomes suspicious of the whole enterprise, let us make it very clear that our own starting point is also one of suspicion. None of us wants to say that everything (from social philosophy to science and politics, to quote Kelsen) is a “religion.” But don’t rejoice too soon, for our thesis is no less radical: it states that in fact nothing is.
It is the very distinction between the religious and the secular that becomes enormously problematic when you take a fresh look at it from the angle of “secular religions” rhetoric.
The terminology is still pending. For a time I used “political theology”, but this refers only to analogies between theological and political concepts and theories. I also tried to use “political religions” to emphasize practical and institutional implications, but it too strongly evokes totalitarian allusions. Right now I use “secular religions”, although it is clearly a contradiction: if something is secular, it is not religious and vice versa. The contradiction itself, however, may help to bring home the message that the separation of the “religious” and the “secular” is anything but clear and self-evident.
About the project
This is part of a larger project we’re working on at the National University of Public Service, Budapest. For more information, see:
The first step would be to make a catalog of all political ideologies, social, economic, and cultural theories (and their corresponding institutions and practices) that have ever been called “religious” in an analogous sense. Sometimes they’re also called “quasi, pseudo, ersatz” and the like, but this already supposes that we know what a “real” religion looks like, which is certainly not the case. For a preliminary list see:
Request for contributions
If anyone is aware of further authors and works in the field, please don’t hesitate and let me know. I would be most grateful for any suggestions.
Two-hundred years of democratic baloney finally achieved its greatest victory. No single tyrant in the world now fails to resort to the people for support. And let there be no mistake: under certain circumstances the people have always provided such support and will continue to do so, ever more willingly. Populism and democratic despotism are not exclusive to some underdeveloped nations. All political leaders in America and Europe start learning the lesson. None of them, for example, will try to save a university from a popular government when “majorities” everywhere seem to hate everyone who is capable of articulated phonation.
Today, everyone’s talking about immigration and the threat it poses to our culture. Much less they speak of the damage done by our own people: what Walter Rathenau called “the vertical invasion of the barbarians.” It is, actually, more than a threat, it is a fait accompli. I don’t see the “culture” we’re trying to defend. Like Thiemann in Hanns Johst’s Schlageter, “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning!”
Yes, the friends of Johst killed Ratheneau, but nothing like that is likely to happen here. Today’s barbarians are numerous enough to kill the spirit before the flesh.