The God of Nation(s)

Another anniversary, that of the Hungarian revolution of 1848. As the renowned historian András Gerő remarked today on DunaTV (and also in an article on, the phrase “the God of Hungarians” was so widespread at the time that it in fact became part of a secular religion of the nation. Which is no novelty, of course; I myself have written on several aspects of this national religion in my 2018 book on Political Theologies.

Just to name a few: beside references to a national God in poems and political speeches, the new religion also produced its own patriarchs like the revolutionary governor-president Lajos Kossuth (“the Moses of Hungarians”) or saints like the martyrs of Arad (thirteen Hungarian generals executed after the defeat) whose memory has developed into a fully-fledged cult afterwards.

A few years ago, I even saw a reliquary containing the bones of the martyrs and parts of the gallows where some of them were executed (just like pieces of Christ’s cross):

Déri Múzeum, Debrecen. The text says “The relics of generals Lajos Aulich, János Damjanich, and Károly Vécsey.”

All this, however, was nothing extraordinary. The “civil religion” of America (as Robert Bellah wrote in his famous study) also relied on a part biblical, part national symbolism; or, as Carlton Hayes put it, nationalism everywhere had the same religious underpinnings. Not even in the form of a “secular” religion but as a “religion” per se.

Maistre 200

It may not be closely connected to my other topics, but yesterday we had a wonderful conversation about one of the most inspiring and most controversial politico-theological thinkers of the 19th century, Joseph de Maistre. The apropos was the 200th anniversary of his death, which we commemorated with the leading Maistre scholar of our time, Carolina Armenteros from the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra.

Kétszáz éve hunyt el Joseph de Maistre, a nagy francia ellenforradalmár |  Mandiner

This time I will not return to the old “why Maistre was not a bloodthirsty reactionary” issue, for it is something that’s all too obvious to those who actually read his works and inapprehensible to those who don’t. (And won’t, because they already know that Maistre was a bloodthirsty reactionary.) Yesterday we discussed instead the revolutionary counter-revolutionism of Maistre, his advocacy for liberty in face of the French Revolution’s not exactly liberal developments, his contribution to anti-imperial thought, or his ideas of national and popular sovereignty. As for the latter, I myself wrote a chapter on the French counterrevolutionaries’ and liberals’ common fears of majority tyranny in my book The Tyranny of the Majority republished last year in paperback.

“We need more heretics” – further additions to secular religions

In 2020, “identity politics” and “wokeness” became new members of the secular religions club. As Tom Slater put it in Spiked magazine, “Identity politics has become the new secular religion.” The points of similarity are already well-known: collective rituals and liturgical clothes,

The year the ruling class got woke
Democratic lawmakers in the US taking the knee, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Source:

an unquestionable doctrinal system (“wokeness is the new orthodoxy”), including an absolute moral code (“virtue-signalling” and atonement for “past sins”), resulting in popular enthusiasm and intolerance (“a Salem-like hysteria”) or even official persecution (“Heretics must be ousted. Blasphemies must be scrubbed”).

Now all this is once again not a definition, but a parody of how religion is sometimes defined by those who don’t like it. Moreover, it is also unclear what makes identity politics a “secular” religion, and why wokeness is called a “new” – perhaps real? – religion at the end of the article. (And why not simply an “ideology”, for the article also applies the latter.) Yes, I know that this is not an academic paper. And it shouldn’t be. What it nevertheless clearly shows is how “religion” is mostly used as a simple derogation. Moreover, speaking of “the new religion of the ruling class” adds a populist flavor to its anti-religious zeal. All in all, secular-religious talk doesn’t seem to come to and end in 2021. It doesn’t seem to become more accurate, either.

Last thoughts on 2020

Just a few things I did in 2020:

In February, I wrote a review on Carlo Invernizzi-Accetti’s What is Christian Democracy? for our blog at UPS. The title “Christian democracy without Christianity?” sounds a little bombastic, I know, but that’s how blogs work. And it wasn’t my idea, but the editor’s.

What christian democracy politics religion and ideology | European  government, politics and policy | Cambridge University Press

From February to May I had a course at the Széchenyi István College for Advanced Studies, based on my Political Theologies (2018), something I’d like to continue as an English-language book on Secular Religions in 2021.

Könyv: Politikai teológiák (Nyirkos Tamás)

Still in February, I completed a manuscript for the journal Christianity-World-Politics on “Secular religions and the religious/secular divide” (forthcoming in 2021).

In March (just a few days before COVID-related restrictions) I presented a paper on French Catholic politicians at a workshop called “Oratory and representation: parliamentary discourses and practices in the 19th century” in Helsinki. A written version is to be published by the European Review of History in 2021.

Der Reichskanarienvogel

In April, I wrote another review for UPS about Rémi Brague’s Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age. To my surprise, the author personally congratulated me. (It seems that automatic translations are becoming better. Or worse?)

Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age (Catholic Ideas for a  Secular World): Brague, Rémi: 9780268105693: Books

In May, I reviewed Gábor Borbély’s book on the philosophy of religion for the journal BUKSZ. At least I had an opportunity to express all my doubts about the concept of religion, a topic that I begin to be obsessed by now.

In June, I wrote a paper for Acta Humana on “The Religion of Human Rights”, published in Hungarian this fall, and also forthcoming in English in 2021.

In August, I published an article titled “Secular religion in America” in the popular historical journal Rubicon. Popularity can be dangerous, too, but I somehow avoided harsh criticism. (Despite the sensible topic.)

Still in August – thanks to the temporary relief between the first and second wave of the pandemic – we had a “professional picnic” with students of Corvinus University. My lectures dealt with the topic of surveillance; again, not without reference to the theological analogies of panopticism.

And a little surprise, also in August: Routledge published my 2018 book The Tyranny of the Majority in a paperback edition. Is it a sign of success? I found 112 copies in libraries around the world. Which doesn’t seem like a lot, but just to think that your book is available at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, Brandeis, Duke, Fordham, or the Library of Congress is enough to give you chills. Maybe that’s why Routledge approached me whether I had a new book to propose. I certainly do, but this is a task for 2021 (see above).

The Tyranny of the Majority: History, Concepts, and Challenges - 1st E

In September, I started a new course with Széchenyi College. This time on “The End of History” thesis and its critics. From Joachim of Fiore to Francis Fukuyama and beyond.

Then again, in October, I had to return to the French conservatives, presenting a paper at a conference on religion in the 18th century (also to be published in 2021).

I kept on writing reviews, too. This time on Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, a book I’ve mentioned several times here.

And November was even more eventful. One of my friends asked me to contribute to a special issue of the Journal of Political and Military Sociology. The topic is “patriotism”, which gives me an opportunity to examine whether secular religions’ literature distingusihes between patriotism and nationalism. The date of publication is scheduled to be 2022.

And, as you all know by now, we had a great workshop on “Christianity, Politics, and Secular Religions” on November 20, 2020. I still don’t know how I managed to convince such famous authors to participate. Sometimes you’re just lucky. Or maybe the topic of political or secular religions still has its appeal. What’s more, most of them agreed to provide a written paper for our new English language journal Pro Publico Bono in 2021.

In Hungary, we also have a habit of popularizing science for a wider audience. Events like the “Celebration of Hungarian Science” or “Researchers’ Night” are fairly popular among the general public. In November, I gave two such online lectures. One on “Pandemics then and now: historical lessons and contemporary political issues”. Again, not without its politico-theological connections, from Carl Schmitt to Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben. And another one on “Politics as a surrogate religion”.

The last thing I remember from 2020 is a December conference of doctoral students at the Corvinus University, a panel called “Religion and politics.” The best presentation was about Reinhold Niebuhr‘s criticism of secular religions. So the topic doesn’t seem to fade away, at least not in 2021.

A Happy New Year!

From flagellants to Botox: some splendid new additions to the “secular religions” catalog

Last month, the Tablet Magazine published an article by Pascal Bruckner called “The Flagellants of the Western World.” Or, as the summary says: “Like God, colonialism is invisible and omnipresent, responsible for everything that happens on Earth.” An ironic gesture once again, rather than a systematic comparison of secular (political) and religious ideas or practices, but it remains interesting how often these parallelisms come up in today’s journalism. A quicklist of other “religious” terms in the article: catechism, repentance, apostolic, messianic, Eden, myth, inquisitor, self-flagellates, (messianic) vocation, angelic, sacrosanct, extreme unction. And this is not even a long one.

File:Nuremberg chronicles - Flagellants (CCXVr).jpg
Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The other example is (even) less serious. It is from a review of the Hungarian reality show “Feleségek luxiskivitelben” (The Real Housewives of Hungary). As the title goes: “Botox is my religion.” Now this may just be a random phrase (people from my generation all remember that even a certain brand of whiskey can be called a new religion), but the article goes on. “The group of luxury wives divided like the Red Sea” (before Moses and the Jews, that is); into “Botox believers and Botox deniers”, which is “a serious debate, not of the lousy homoousion / homoiousion type.” All this is a joke once again, of course, or – who knows? Interestingly, there are some references to a deeper analogy as well: “Today there is also some spirititual essence in beauty trends, since, as it turned out, those who passed through the Intervention (or Interventions, for this is not like baptism that is enough to take once) belong to an entirely different sect.” The religion-like features of the beauty industry or certain fitness movements have been described by more serious literature as well.

From totalitarianism to the “good Empire”: a few notes on our Friday workshop

Our workshop on Christianity, politics, and secular religions last Friday was absolutely outstanding. It was a special honor to have William Cavanaugh (author of The Myth of Religious Violence and Field Hospital), Patrick Deneen (the author of Democratic Faith), Phillip Blond (director of the ResPublica think-tank), Hans Otto Seitschek (a contributor to Hans Maier’s famous Totalitarianism and Political Religions), and Michal Gierycz (whose European Debate on the Human Being is forthcoming by Springer) among our presenters.

As the above list already suggests, we also had some real debates. Bill and Patrick will never completely agree on what a Christian contribution to politics means; nationalism as a “spendid idolatry” remains disputed by anyone who thinks of it as part of the Christian heritage. Phillip’s idea of “good” and “bad” empires also remains controversial, of course, even if Christianity is supposed to be “universal in the sense that it promotes all particularities that represent the universal.” Not to mention the anthropological disputes within the EU and the Christian Democratic parties’ role in such disputes (the topic of Michal), of which Phillip simply remarked that Christian Democracy is dead. Totalitarianism (by Hans Otto) was perhaps the only topic on which there was a consensus, but even in this case, the “religious” nature of totalitarianism seems somewhat problematic. To me, it looks more like a political appropriation of Christianity, and not of religion in general.

But I may return to some of these topics later on. For the time being it suffices to say that “secular” or “political” religions, despite all their terminological problems, still seem to be inspiring, and not only for me.

Christianity, politics, and secular religions

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Jacob-Gerritsz-Az-egyhaz-hajoja-1024x768.jpg
“The Church as Ship” by Jacob Gerritsz. Source: Utrecht, Catharijneconvent.

Next Friday (November 20, 4:00 PM CET) we’ll have an interesting online workshop on the relationship between “Christianity, politics, and secular religions” hosted by the University of Public Service. It is a special honor for me that such outstanding scholars and public intellectuals accepted my invitation as William T. Cavanaugh and Patrick Deneen from the US, Phillip Blond from the UK, Hans Otto Seitschek from Germany, and Michal Gierycz from Poland.

A brief description

The current politico-theological debates in the West have deep historical roots. The “rise of the state as a process of secularization” as the German jurist Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde put it, created a public sphere where Christian churches lost much of their political influence, while the sources of individual ethos and social cohesion became increasingly problematic. This challenge was answered by totalitarian regimes by the creation of new “political” religions, while liberal democracies insisted on maintaining religious and ideological neutrality, even if in a highly ambiguous fashion, some of them never abandoning the idea of a “civil religion” of the nation-state. The very proliferation of political, civil, or – more broadly speaking – “secular” religions raises the question whether the traditional conceptualizations of secularization are still valid, or Christianity itself faces a new situation in which Christian churches, Christian democratic parties and political actors need to redefine their relationship to a newly emerging empire. A Christian contribution to the politics of the future seems to depend on giving an appropriate response to this question (and many other related ones) in a both theoretical and practical sense.


1. Hans-Otto Seitschek: Totalitarianisms as political religions in the 20th century: historical and philosophical reflections
2. William T. Cavanaugh: The splendid idolatry of nationalism
3. Tamás Nyirkos: The proliferation of secular religions: theoretical and practical aspects
4. Michal Gierycz: The EPP’s role in anthropological disputes within the EU
5. Patrick J. Deneen: Liberal and Post-Liberal Theology: From One City to Two
6. Phillip Blond: Christianity and Empire – Realizing the Universal

The event is open for everyone interested. For more details, click here.

A few more words on Wikipedia’s “Secular Religion”

As I said before, Wikipedia’s definition of “secular religion” is problematic in itself:

“A secular religion is a communal  belief system that often rejects or neglects the metaphysical aspects of the supernatural, commonly associated with traditional religion, instead placing typical religious qualities in earthly entities.”

But the bigger problem is that the initial list of secular religions already contradicts this definition:

“Among systems that have been characterized as secular religions are capitalism, communism, Juche, anarchism, fascism, nationalism, democracy, liberalism, progressivism, transhumanism, Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity, and the Cults of Reason and Supreme Being that developed after the French Revolution.”

On this somewhat chaotic list the most obvious mistake is, of course, the reference to the Cult of the Supreme Being. The Supreme Being is certainly not an “earthly entity” but a transcendent deity. The name was chosen only in order to distinguish it from the idea of the Christian God. This shows already the most typical presupposition of secular religion discourse: that everything that is similar to Christianity but not identical with it; and has a secular purpose as well, must be a secular (or quasi-, or pseudo-) religion, even if it has an evidently supernatural, personal Absolute. I would understand, to be sure, if a (fundamentalist?) Christian theologian made such a move. If one thinks that there is only one true, revealed religion, namely Christianity, then everything else will look very secular. And even more dangerously so if it in some way imitates Christianity. What I don’t understand is how anyone else can make a similar distinction between “secular” and “genuine” religions.

All in all, let’s face it that the Cult of the Supreme Being was exactly what the name says: a cult (a worship, or a “religion”, if you like) of a personal God. Even the immortality of the soul (another not very secular idea) was added:

File:Le peuple français reconnaît l'être suprême.jpg
“The French People recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.” Anonymous print from France, 1794. Source: Gallica Digital Library.

All in all: there was nothing secular here, except the moral, social, and political purposes that the cult of the Supreme Being certainly aimed to serve. But are “genuine” religions totally devoid of such purposes? Are there any “transcendent” religions that are “fully” transcendent?

But this is only the most obviously problematic example. By a closer look, the Cult of Reason also implies belief in a transcendent Absolute. The “Reason” mentioned here is not the mind of any individual person, but an imagined universal principle of rationality, so not a personal deity, but a transcendent something all the same.

It could also be asked whether the new, transhuman (sometimes literally “immortal”) creations of transhumanism, the imagined “People” of democracy, the idealized “Proletariat” of Communism, or the “invisible hand” of the market are any more “secular” than the Supreme Being of the French Revolution. Or even any more impersonal, for formulas like the “will”, the “wisdom”, or the “actions” of the people, the proletariat, the market, etc. keep reappearing all the time. Are all these metaphors only? Maybe so, but the question still remains to be answered: why do we use exactly these kinds of metaphors? Does the fact that we cannot get rid of them points to a more profound issue? Or is it just a sign of our basic irrationality?

By the way, it seems that even Reason is impossible to worship without some divine personification.

File:Fête de la Raison 1793.jpg
The Feast of Reason in the former Notre Dame in 1793. Source: Gallica Digital Library.

“Secular religion” in the Wikipedia

As the Wikipedia entry on secular religion says (and I’m inclined to take it as a definition): “A secular religion is a communal belief system that often rejects or neglects the metaphysical aspects of the supernatural, commonly associated with traditional religion, instead placing typical religious qualities in earthly entities.”

But what is a “communal” belief system? Does it mean that there are also “non-communal” ones? Is there any belief system (with an emphasis on the word system) that is not communal but – let’s say – individual?

To go further: what does it mean that such a system “often” rejects or neglects metaphysical aspects? That sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t? Then what is the difference between a belief system that rejects or neglects metaphysical aspects and a belief system that doesn’t? Or do both of these belong to the same category?

Also, is it the same to “reject” something and to “neglect” it?

As for “metaphysical aspects”, I wonder what the non-metaphysical aspects of the “supernatural” would be, for “supernatural” seems very much like a per se metaphysical concept itself.

I also don’t understand what the phrase “commonly associated with” means. Who is this “common” self who associates the “supernatural” (whatever that means) with anything?

The term “traditional religion” – especially in the singular – is likewise difficult to understand. There may be traditions that are sometimes vaguely called “religious”, but I know of no such overarching category as a single “traditional” religion.

I’m also unaware of any “typical religious qualities,” just as I’m unaware of any “earthly” ones; at least until someone explains to me why the opposite of “religious” is “earthly”, especially when the very term “secular religion” suggests that “earthly religions” are just as “religious” as non-earthly ones.

The perhaps most miserable word of all is, of course,”entity”, which usually means “I-know-not-what” – but, as we have seen, it is true of the whole article that its creators had no idea of what they were talking about.

And this is just the beginning!

Secular religions literature and where not to find it

A few days ago, a friend of mine asked me about a comprehensive introduction into the topic of “secular religions”. There is, however, no such book srictly speaking. The only one by a similar title, Hans Kelsen’s Secular Religion was written in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is actually (as the subtitle goes) A Polemic Against the Misinterpretation of Modern Social Philosophy, Science and Politics As New Religions, so rather an extroduction than an introduction.

We have, of course, plenty of great books on political theology and political religions, as well as on many specific topics from the altars of Wall Street to psychology as religion. Just a few months ago, Tara Isabella Burton published a new one called Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, but once again on specific cultural (or spiritual, whatever that means) phenomena in contemporary America, and not on “new religions” in general.

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by [Tara Isabella Burton]

Yes, of course, Wikipedia also has an entry on “Secular Religion”, but this is rather a medley of different arbitrary examples: citing for example only ONE modern case, that of the former Turkmen president’s cult of personality. Hm. Maybe I will also write a more detailed review on this entry later.