Sunday, 20 June 2010


Recent calls for a 21st century Enlightenment (the new strapline for the Royal Society of Arts) go roughly like this. The Enlightenment legacy of Individualism, Universalism and Humanism needs to be reinterpreted and relaunched. Our society is prone to violence and selfishness, so we need a revival of ethics. Scientific research that shows morality and communitarianism to be rooted in biology strengthens the hope that such a revival is possible. In my view this risks being a feeble argument, unless it takes into account the spiritual as well as the material nature of man. The Enlightenment led to a privatization of faith that allowed an agressive materialism to flourish and dominate. What we need is a new kind of secularity based on a broader concept of reason. The Summer 2010 issue of RSA Journal itself contains a plea by Prof. Cecile Laborde of University College, London:
Secularism properly understood – as a political philosophy – need not be anti-religious. The secular state is not a state committed to substantive atheism or to the marginalization of religion from public and social life. It is, rather, a state in which citizens share a language – a secular language – for discussing political matters.
Prof. Laborde's view is that “religion has a legitimate place in the secular state”, and not merely as a cultural curiosity. She distinguishes Reformation secularism, which aimed at protecting the conscience of all citizens, from
Enlightenment secularism, which aimed to liberate the state from the influence of religion. In the former, religious believers may try to influence the democratic majority in favour of a specific policy (such as the banning of abortion) as long as they do so using arguments based on reason rather than revelation. I take it that under what she calls Enlightenment secularism, the reasonable arguments of believers tend to be discounted on the grounds that they are speaking as believers and are therefore not to be trusted.

There is quite a lot of thinking going on in Catholic circles about the ambiguity of secularism. Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, from the Vatican Secretariat of State, said while visiting Cuba recently that when religious liberty is subordinated to some other principle, there is a tendency to turn “neutrality into agnosticism and separation into hostility”. “In such a case,” he said, “paradoxically the state becomes a confessional state and no longer authentically secular, because it makes of secularity its supreme value, the determinant ideology, in fact a sort of religion, including with civil rites and liturgies.” “It should be the task of the state to recognize the key role of religious liberty and promote it positively.”

This is the kind of question being addressed in the summer school of the Marcianum in Venice this September. Cardinal Angelo Scola (the founder and head of the Marcianum) has said that what is needed is what he calls a metissage or crossbreeding of civilisations that is a continuing process, not a set goal. “I’m not arguing for syncretism” he said. “We have to conceive of laïcité in a new way, as a civil society in which all people  offer their ideals of life and ways of conceiving the material and spiritual good and try to find common ground. In this sense, one should avoid the abstract idea of multiculturalism, which hasn’t worked either in Britain or in France.” The cardinal said Muslims should be active citizens in Europe and not try to keep a distance from society around them. “This is the way Christians (in the Middle East) do it. They have churches and their communities, but when they enter into the life of the city of man, they enter as citizens.”The strength of religion is to propose a concrete universal ideal, in contrast to the formal conception of laïcité that only refers to a charter of human rights that is often reduced just to formal principles. It leaves problems unsolved … it neutralizes all public experience of religion so that, in the words of the German Idealists, it creates ‘a night in which all cows are black’.”

Many Europeans are tempted to see laïcité, as the French call the strict separation of  church and state, as “a neutral and empty place and pretend that religious people behave like atheists,” Scola said. “That’s an abstraction that in the end will not bring much luck to Europe.”

Debates around the attempt to ban crucifixes from Italian schools have led to a clarification of the issues involved. In a homily on 15 April 2010, Pope Benedict XVI exposed many of the fallacies at the root of anti-religious secularism, in words that deserve careful meditation:
The modern age has spoken of the liberation of man, of his full autonomy, and therefore also of liberation from obedience to God. It is said that obedience should no longer exist, man is free, he is autonomous: nothing else. But this autonomy is a lie: it is an ontological lie, because man does not exist on his own and for himself, and it is also a political and practical lie, because collaboration, the sharing of freedom, is necessary. And if God does not exist, if God is not an imperative accessible to man, what remains as the supreme imperative is only the consensus of the majority. As a result, the consensus of the majority becomes the last word, which we must obey. And this consensus - we know this from the history of the last century - can also be a "consensus in evil."  So we see that so-called autonomy does not truly liberate man. Obedience to God is freedom, because it is the truth, it is the imperative that stands before all human imperatives.
This is the difficulty. Let us suppose a democratic society hospitable to faith, which invites religious believers to make their case in rational language. What will be allowed to count as "rational language" here? It seems we need to go beyond the discussion of "values" such as tolerance, reciprocity, respect and freedom to debate the nature of rationality itself, and then return to consider the deeper meaning of those terms. Perhaps there is no purely secular language for discussing political matters, because our understanding of such terms depends on assumptions about truth and human nature. Faith and reason are distinct, but their relationship is too complex to allow a simple separation.

See this interview with the French thinker Remi Brague on "Religious Secularity".

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