It seems you just can’t avoid those off-hand references to “new religions.” Today I saw a review of Paul Embery’s book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class published last year. I haven’t read it yet, I confess, but at least one chapter bears the title “A New National Religion: Liberal Wokedom.” Which is no great novelty, of course, I myself have cited similar examples before. The only reason I think it’s still worth mentioning is to show how widespread this sort of “new”, “secular”, etc. religion discourse is. Of course, as I said many times, most of this discourse is merely metaphorical or sensationalist. But the very fact that people from all walks of life use such language points to our secular age’s profound interest in (and uncertainty about) what religion is. But don’t panic: this time I will not go into the details of defining religion. Maybe in my next post.
No, these words are not from a book on medieval church history. They are from a recent article on artificial intelligence in New Atlantis, written by Adam Elkus. The article, moreover, also mentions spirits, demons, demonic forces, heresies, rituals – and again, this is not just a play with words. In a refreshingly erudite manner, it draws an analogy between our recent trust in algorithms to save us from ourselves and our more ancient belief in non-human agents to do the same. The author even uses Charles Taylor’s concepts of “porous” and “buffered” selves from his famous book A Secular Agein a way that is an overt criticism of the whole idea of so-called “secularization”.
To be sure, Elkus is no religious scholar, and this is still not an article on secularization or secular religions. It makes some very profound comments on human desires and the intentions to control them, while also points to some serious misunderstandings about human nature, ethics, and rationality. What seems nevertheless obvious is that a “religious” language (in this case, more precisely, the language of medieval Christianity) remains unavoidable when discussing any such question. This is no mistake, and not – or not only – a form of clickbait journalism.
Which all of us are forced to practice sometimes, anyway (see e.g. the title of this post). Or the picture below.
At this very moment, I’m at an international workshop on patriotism. What makes it especially interesting is how many presentations (about half of all) explicitly deal with religion. My own preliminary paper (a full version is expected to appear in 2022):
From Political Religion to Religious Politics and Back
The term “political religion” (religio politica) was first used in the 17th century by authors like Tommaso Campanella or Daniel Clasen (Seitschek 2007, 103). It originally meant the official religion of a community (polis), similarly to what the ancient theologia tripartita called “political theology” in distinction from philosophical and mythical theologies. With all their political implications, however, these were “real” religions or theologies that openly confessed belief in God or gods, exercised explicitly religious rituals, and had their own priesthood named as such.
In contrast, when the word was revived at the end of the 18th century by Condorcet, “political religion” referred to a set of teachings, practices, and institutions that were self-professedly secular, yet continued to show an unintended (and, in the eyes of the critic, deplorable) resemblance to traditional religions. Condorcet’s target was the new system of public education in revolutionary France, or, more precisely, its proposal for the teaching of the Constitution:
“It has been said that the teaching of the constitution of each country should be part of national education. This is true, no doubt, if we speak of it as a fact; if we content ourselves with explaining it; if, in teaching it, we confine ourselves to saying: Such is the constitution established in the State to which all citizens must submit. But if we say that it must be taught as a doctrine in line with the principles of universal reason or arouse in its favor a blind enthusiasm which renders citizens incapable of judging it; if we say to them: This is what you must worship and believe; then it is a kind of political religion that we want to create. It is 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.” (Condorcet 2005 , 42)
Although Condorcet’s aim was to “unmask” a purportedly secular system’s hidden similarities to “religion” (which for him, as for most contemporaries, usually meant Christianity), it is doubtful whether there was anything to unmask at all. The Fête de la Constitution, it is true, was only made into something like a religious celebration in 1791 (Ozouf 1976, 102), but other, “patriotic” feasts had already begun with the creation of the Fête de la Fédération in 1790, all with the aim to propagate – a still non-existent – national unity (Ozouf 1976, 63). The spatial center of these festivities was always the “Altar of the Fatherland” (another explicitly religious reference) and already in 1790, two years before the outbreak of revolutionary wars, they were primarily military events symbolizing the unity of the army and the people (Ozouf 1976, 99).
Later developments (the creation of the Panthéon as a “temple of the nation” or the adoption of the Marseillaise as a national anthem with lines like “amour sacré de la patrie”) also reinforced the nation and the homeland as the center of this political religion, so much so that even counterrevolutionary authors like Joseph de Maistre acknowledged that the successful amalgamation of patriotism and revolutionary spirit established the military triumphs of the French armies (Maistre 1994, 16-17). The political religion of homeland and nation – with all its belligerent features – was therefore ready for adoption by other European nations in the nineteenth century.
Examples of such patriotic / nationalistic religions were many and varied. Some of those in the nineteenth century were still associated with traditional Christianity (much in the same way as the first Fête de la Fédération involved a Catholic liturgy in France); others translated Christian symbolism into a new context; and still others acted as open rivals to Christianity.
The perhaps most famous one was the “Christ of Nations” or “Christ of Europe” idea in Poland, popularized by Adam Mickiewicz’s dramatic poem Dziady (Forefather’s Eve, 1832), which identified the vicissitudes of Polish history with the redemptive sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. This idea – a peculiar combination of belief in the Christian God and the Old Testament view of a chosen nation, but also with a European outlook, since the sufferings of the Poles was expected to bring salvation to other oppressed nations – became widespread all through Europe, especially France, where Mickiewicz took refuge after 1832. In Italy, the Risorgimento was also often seen as a religious undertaking (Mazzini 2009, 124), sometimes in agreement with Catholic doctrine, sometimes in open hostility with the latter (or at least with the Papacy, after it rejected to take a leading role in the liberation of Italy, see e. g. Chadwick 1981, 545).
In other countries such as Hungary, poems like the 1823 Himnusz by Ferenc Kölcsey (later to become the national anthem of Hungary) also adopted the chosen nation imagery for Hungarians: a “nation that suffered for all sins of past and future.” By the 1848 revolution, references to the “God of Hungarians” became commonplace in popular literature (see Sándor Petőfi’s National Song or Gergely Czuczor’s Alarm), even though the exact meaning of such phrases remained ambiguous: on the one hand, adherence to traditional Christianity was still explicitly professed, while the very idea of a national God stood in obvious tension with Christian universalism. The leader of the revolution, governor president Lajos Kossuth was also called the “Moses of Magyars” (even in official documents like municipal records), while after the defeat of the war of independence in 1849, the thirteen Hungarian generals executed by Austrian authorities were not only called “Martyrs”, but a full-fledged cult arose around them, with their bones and parts of their gallows placed in reliquaries (similarly to the veneration of the relics of Christian saints or pieces of the holy cross in medieval Europe, see Nyirkos 2018, 100). The link between religious patriotism and military efforts is once again hard to dismiss.
The image of Hungary as a chosen nation, or a Christ of Nations gained a new impetus after the First World War, when two-thirds of Hungary’s former territory had been lost to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the later Yugoslavia). Although the replacement of Christ with a secular entity like the nation or the nation-state should once again seem problematic from a Christian point of view, it remains true that in Hungary, the new (political) and the traditional (Christian) aspects of the patriotic religion continued to be intertwined. It was only after the Second World War that such rhetoric became unacceptable or outright forbidden during the Communist era, only to reappear – but still in a rudimentary form and certainly not as an official political religion – after the regime change in 1989-90.
Something like an official recognition only arrived with the 2010’s, when prime minister Viktor Orbán (who previously defined his “national approach” to politics as “illiberal”, see Orbán 2014) changed his vocabulary to “Christian democratic” in 2018, while still maintaining that the two concepts were basically identical:
“Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues – say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.” (Orbán 2018a)
For our present purpose, the main point of interest is the reference to anti-immigration policies, which seems most obviously to involve a defense of national unity; or, as the prime minister more explicitly put it in a radio interview also in 2018, Christian democracy meant the protection of the nation against all outside forces: “global ideologies are rejected; because we believe in the importance of the nation, and in Hungary we do not want to yield to any supranational business or a political empire” (Orbán 2018b). Linking nationalism or patriotism to Christianity – despite the tension with Christian universalism mentioned above – is, however, still not what we might call a political religion. It rather looks like a mixture of politics and religion, at least until one reads it together with the most interesting passage in the 2018 speech where it is repeated no less than three times that this sort of Christian politics is “not about defending religious articles of faith”, “our duty is not to defend the articles of faith”, and “not the protection of religious articles of faith is the duty of Christian democracy” (Orbán 2018a).
In other words, Christian democracy is not a religious, but a secular ideology, a transfer of religious concepts into the political realm, which is the exact definition of what is usually called a political religion. Many other examples might be listed, but let me just cite one more from 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which formally ended the First World War for Hungary, and, as I mentioned earlier, meant the greatest loss of territory and population for the Hungarian state in history. In his commemoration speech on June 6th, Viktor Orbán outlined a complete eschatological vision of “five Trianon generations”: four until the present day and one more in the future, whose task is to fight a last “decisive battle” for Hungary, another invocation of military imagery (Orbán 2020). Similar “immanentizations of the eschaton” or “secularizations of salvation history” are, of course, well known from the works of Eric Voegelin or Karl Löwith (among others), but here, the location of the speech is also significant: the so-called “Hungarian Calvary” near the town of Sátoraljaújhely (which was itself divided by the new border drawn in Trianon). The monument was erected in 1936, and its very symbolism expresses the analogy of the nation’s sufferings with the passion of Jesus Christ, a core feature of many political religions since the nineteenth century.
At the same time, however – and especially with regard to the many ambiguities involved in such rhetoric –, it is yet to be seen whether all this constitutes a full-fledged “political religion” or just one aspect of a complicated ideological framework that tries to connect patriotism and the defense of one’s homeland at a higher level than a simply secular commitment would suggest.
Chadwick, Owen (1981): The Popes and European Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Condorcet, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat (2005): Cinq mémoires sur l’instruction publique. http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/condorcet/cinq_memoires_instruction/Cinq_memoirs_instr_pub.pdf
Löwith, Karl (1949): Meaning in History: The Theological Implication of the Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Maistre, Joseph de (1994): Consideration on France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mazzini, Giuseppe (2009): A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations. Edited by Stefano Recchia and Nadia Urbinati. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Nyirkos, Tamás (2018): Politikai teológiák: a demokráciától az ökológiáig. Budapest: Typotex.
Orbán, Viktor (2014): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp.
Orbán, Viktor (2018a): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the 29th Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp.
Orbán Viktor (2018b): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “180 Minutes.”
Orbán, Viktor (2020): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Commemoration Speech.
Ozouf, Mona (1976): La fête révolutionnaire 1789-1799. Paris: Gallimard.
Seitschek, Hans Otto (2007): Early Uses of the Concept ‘Political Religion’: Campanella, Clasen and Wieland. In Totalitarianism and Political Religions, Volume Three. Edited by Hans Maier. London: Routledge.
Voegelin, Eric (2000): Political Religions. In The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. Volume 5. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
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 24.hu), 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 onPolitical 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):
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.
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.
This time I will not return to the old “why Maistre was nota 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 wasa 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 bookThe Tyranny of the Majority republished last year in paperback.
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,
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.
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.
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 Humanaon “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 Majorityin 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.