We have dethroned the old Gods

A new piece by Alexander Grau from the Neue Züricher Zeitung. The title goes: “Only those who respect limit values will be redeemed: we have dethroned the old gods [but] all the more eagerly believe in new ones.” Not very interesting, it actually repeats the usual mantra of dogmatism, intolerance, preachers, heretics, exorcism, etc., the whole Hollywoodian parody of medieval religiosity. This time in connection with climate activism, migration politicies, minorities and gender, but this is nothing new, either. (See some of my earlier posts here or here or even here.)

I’m really starting to be afraid that such journalistic clichés may destroy the whole credibility of secular / religious comparisons in the academia as well. Hm, I must finish my book as soon as possible.

Saviors, Apocalypse, Salvation, Witch-Hunt, and the Road to Hell

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 Age in 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.

Tenture de l’Apocalypse au château d’Angers. Photo taken by Remi Jouan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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: Amazon.com: 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!

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.  

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.

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.