Secularism: The Basics
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Secularism: The Basics

Jacques Berlinerblau

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eBook - ePub

Secularism: The Basics

Jacques Berlinerblau

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Secularism: The Basics is a concise and engaging introduction to confusing and contradictory public discussions of secularism across the globe.

"Secularism" must be the most confused and convoluted term in the entire global political lexicon. From New York to Paris, to Istanbul, to Addis Ababa, to New Delhi, to Montevideo, there are countless examples of politicians, religious leaders and journalists, invoking the S-word in heated debates about public education, gender, sex, national symbols, and artistic freedom. In this lively and lucid book, Jacques Berlinerblau addresses why secularism is defined in so many ways and why it so ignites people's passions. In so doing, he explores the following important questions: What does secularism mean? Why should we care about this idea? What are the different types of secularism and what are their histories? What are the basic principles of political secularisms? Why are secularism and Atheism often confused? What is the relationship between secularism and LGBTQ rights? What opposition are secularisms up against? What does the future hold for a concept millennia in the making, but only really operationalized in the twentieth century?

With a glossary of key terms, case studies, informative tables, and suggestions for further reading throughout, the book considers key philosophical, religious, anti-religious, post-modern and post-colonial arguments around secularism. This book is an ideal starting point for anyone seeking a readable introduction to the often-conflicting interpretations of one of our era's most complex and controversial ideas.

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The S-word

Define your terms!

DOI: 10.4324/9781003140627-1
According to Google Ngram Viewer, the term “secularism” is now being used more than ever. There has been a three hundred and fifty percent increase in its frequency since 1980, and not just in the English language.
Spend a few minutes on the internet, and you’ll notice that the S-word stokes passionate debates from the Global North to the Global South. The good (?) name of secularism appears in the same breath as atheism, colonialism, communism, Fundamentalism, humanism, Islamism, liberal democracy, liberalism, Marxism, multiculturalism, nationalism, patriarchy, postmodernism, pluralism, racism, socialism, sexism, Stalinism, and every religion there is. Some want to bring secularism “back” or “in.” Others want to kick it out. And still others claim it is already dead.
But before we go any further, there is one crucial question we must address: what is (or was) secularism?
The first thing to understand about this term is that there is no one agreed-upon understanding of the term! There is little consensus about what this -ism actually is, what it actually does, and whose interests it actually serves. Be that as it may, many people have very strong opinions about secularism, both for and against.
The Dalai Lama appears to be “for it.” In 2018 he described secularism as a system that lets “different religions coexist—in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.” The atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens lauded “secular pluralism” as “an urgent and inescapable responsibility: a matter of survival.” In 2020 the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, referred to his country’s version of secularism (known as laïcité) as follows: “Laïcité is what bonds a united France. We must thus respect laïcité unwaveringly and justly.”
As for those who are “against it,” they are likely in the majority. Pope Benedict XVI observed that: “There is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West … a world without God has no future.” “This word ‘secularism’ is the biggest threat to develop[ing] India’s prosperous traditions and giv[ing] it a spot on the global stage,” warned the chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath in March 2021. “Secularism is antithetical to Islam,” declared the Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, “it has never succeeded in Muslim societies.” Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev speaks of “the consistent, systematic, and well-targeted onslaught of militant secularism on what remains of European Christian civilization, along with the desire to obliterate it once and for all.”
A cardinal rule for studying secularism might be described as “Define your terms!” Often enough you need to “Define other people’s terms!” as well. In that spirit, let me note that the speakers above are using the same word to refer to different, though sometimes overlapping, concepts. Secularism for some of these figures was: (1) atheism; and/or (2) the opposite, or nemesis, of religion; and/or (3) a system that wishes to destroy religion. These three understandings comprise our first set of definitions (see Figure 1.1).
We glimpsed a second, very different, definitional set in the comments of the Dalai Lama and Emmanuel Macron. They depicted secularism as (4) a political doctrine for regulating how the state, on the one side, will interact with the church, mosque, synagogue, ashram, what have you, on the other. Some textbooks and dictionaries casually refer to this as “separation of church and state.” But for reasons that will be made clear, we think it’s much more precise to call it “political secularism.” Figure 1.2 describes some of the basic frameworks of political secularism that we will study in this book.
Things get complicated, and interesting, when we consider that at certain points and places in history our two definitions overlapped. The Venn diagram in Figure 1.3 should give you a good sense of the possible relations between our two sets. You will note that Set 1 (“atheism and anti-clericalism”) and Set 2 (“political secularism”) share common ground in an atheist framework of political secularism which we will call “Soviet secularism” (see Chapter 9).
Figure 1.1 Definitional Set 1: secularism = non-belief/anti-religion
Figure 1.2 Definitional Set 2: secularism = political secularism
Figure 1.3 Common perceptions of secularism and how they sometimes overlap
In the first part of this book we will chart the slow, unsteady development of political secularism (Set 2) across time and space. You might be surprised to see that we’ll trace its origins to the Bible. From there we will watch how secularism’s core principles emerged, in dribs and drabs, during the Christian Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Secularism, some might be surprised to learn, has a religious genealogy.
As I have described it so far, this genealogy might seem awfully “Western” or “Euro.” This is true, but we will have occasion to complexify that oft-made claim. Our discussions of India, China, Turkey, and modern Africa will show that, past or present, and for better or for worse, secularism is a truly global concept.
As for atheism (Set 1), it is part of our story. A big part. Though it makes its entrance a few thousand years into the narrative. Atheism and political secularism first synergize in nineteenth-century Victorian England. I will refer to their history-altering union as “the swerve” (Chapter 8).
Then in the twentieth century, after a gestation period of two millennia, political secularisms blossomed and mushroomed in nation-states across the globe. Some secularisms, such as those in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, were atheistic (and hence bring together Sets 1 and 2). Others, in countries like India or the United States, have little to do with nonbelief or dislike of religion (and thus stay strictly within the realm of Set 2 with no overlap). A student must be able to conceptually distinguish one from the other because confusing secularism with atheism is one of the biggest mistakes one can make—and it is a mistake that is made often!
But whether the secularism we are looking at today is atheistic, as it was in Albania’s 1976 Constitution, or separationist (and hence non-atheistic), as it is in Chad, Ethiopia, and Gabon, know this: wherever there is secularism, there is fierce opposition to it as well. To study the subject of secularism is often to watch as a very particular type of religion, which some might call Fundamentalism, goes lunging headfirst and with primordial force into another beast of sorts: the modern nation-state. The purpose of this book is to help readers think calmly, critically, and with nuance, about that collision and the controversies it creates. Let’s turn to some of those disputes now.

What we talk about when we talk about secularism

Now that I have defined other people’s terms, I will start to define my own. Throughout this book I will argue that the definitional confusion around the term “secularism” is not merely an academic quibble. Rather, it is part of secularism’s political weakness and vulnerability. Secularism is perpetually defined by its enemies. Meanwhile, some of its defenders can’t accurately and clearly tell you what it is.
So permit me to offer you a very basic definition: political secularism refers to legally binding actions of the secular state that seek to regulate the relationship between itself and religious citizens, and between religious citizens themselves. Naturally, we will soon unpack that crucial term “secular state.” Too, we will have much to say about political secularisms that do not control the state. For now, let’s work with this “skinny definition.” It will help us understand what is being talked (or screamed) about when people address this theme.
As we saw above, many speak about secularism, erroneously I think, as an adversary of religion. That conception of secularism as “anti-religious,” or hostile to people of faith certainly is something we all talk about when we talk about secularism. In addition to that conversation, certain types of issues, or flashpoints, recur in discussions of secularism. Four broad categories leap to mind:

State institutions, spaces, symbols

When debates about secularism break out, they often concern state institutions, spaces, and symbols. Either the secular state enforces a law which some religious citizens don’t like or, in a new twist, a supposedly “secular state” does something that seems to favor one religion (and thus appears to be anti-secular).
One recurring hotspot is public education. Secular and anti-secular columns fight doggedly about how and what students are taught. That’s because both know that to control a system of education is to control the future of a country. In secular states like the People’s Republic of China and Uruguay, religious instruction in public schools is explicitly prohibited. In India, the situation is more complicated. The ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party recently advocated for history textbooks that demonize periods of Muslim rule while “glorify[ing] ancient and medieval Hindu rulers.”
Secularists and their foes have tangled in the United States, where fierce disputes about the teaching of evolution have dragged on for nearly half a century. Mexico in the period 1910–1917 and France in the period 1870–1905 witnessed pitch battles about the place of the Catholic Church in national educational systems. In both cases, the liberal nationalists managed to remove the Church from its once-hegemonic position.
Similar controversies flare about shared public spaces. An ongoing dust-up in Israel (which is not a secular state) concerns gender-segregated seating on public transportation. Ultra-orthodox Jews have requested that female passengers sit separately on trains and buses. They often take matters into their own hands and enforce that preference. Israeli “secular nationalists” (see Chapter 13) urge the state, and its courts, to crack down on such practices.
Then there is public religious symbolism, which is always contentious for secularism. I would draw your attention to the YouTube video entitled “2019 Christmas Decorations at the White House.” It featured the first lady, Melania Trump, meandering amidst a forest of towering Christmas Trees in the official residence of the president of the United States of America. Upon viewing this clip one might wonder if there is actual “separation of church and state” in the United States—which, as we shall see, there likely is not!
Another controversy about public symbols broke out in 2013. It started when the European Union commissioned a commemorative coin. This special Euro, designed by a Slovakian artist, featured images of two Byzantine monks, Cyril and Methodius. One grasped a cross, another brandished a bible, and both had halos around their heads. Some EU Members, notably France, objected. They argued that such religious iconography had no place in currency minted by the EU whose founding texts make no mention of Christianity. The coins were eventually circulated.
Let’s go back to our skinny definition: political secularism refers to legally binding actions of the secular state that seek to regulate the relationship between itself and religious citizens, and between religious citizens themselves. Israel (which is not a secular state) and the EU (which is not a state, but an intergovernmental body) notwithstanding, the cases above, featured a secular state making decisions about how its own schools, spaces, and currencies relate to religion.
Please note that in the case of Melania Trump, the secular state was making an anti-secular decision; it appeared to be endorsing Christianity from the White House. The anti-secular spirit was also evident in the BJP’s Islamophobic curriculum. The same might be said about the EU “monks in halos” coin. Given that the United States, India and EU are assumed by many to be “secular,” this reminds us that political secularisms in the twenty-first century are under siege.

Gender and sexual minorities

You might have noticed that all of the speakers cited above who were “for” or “against” secularism were men. In recent years, more and more women have entered the dialogue. Their insights will be shared throughout this work.
But my all-man montage of pro- and anti-secular viewpoints underscores an important truth. Historically speaking, public disputes about secularism have been dominated by one gender. Which is ironic, because these disputes often have huge implications for other genders. Matters are slowly changing, but secularism has traditionally been a dialogue conducted by men whose consequences are felt acutely by women and those who fall outside the traditional binary.
Issues of gender and sexuality are of great interest to those who are opposed to secularism. In Chapter 11 we’ll meet conservative religious anti-secular movements (CRAS for short). They are...