Secularism and Religion in a global age

Submitted by AWL on 21 July, 2005 - 12:42

Recently there have been many discussions in Solidarity and on the left in general on political matters with a religious theme. Issues such as the ban on the veil in French schools, the extension of faith based education and social care in the UK, the protection from discrimination in goods and services on the basis of belief or non belief in the Equalities Bill, the proposed religious hate laws — all these call for an understanding about the relationship between religion and politics.

By Maria Exall

In these debates assumptions have been made about the nature of contemporary secularism and the separation of church and state that I think need much more clarification and analysis. In this article I wish to briefly consider the symbiotic relationship between fundamentalism and secularism; the separation of church and state; erroneous assumptions about the motivation of religious believers involved in political action; and lastly touch on some theoretical themes.

Firstly though, I must make a simple observation which if unacknowledged can lead to much confusion in discussions on secularism. Religious and non religious ideas cannot be simply delineated in the history of ideas. Furthermore religious ideas, like all ideas, change over time, and within religious traditions there may be varying theoretical and historical traditions.

When it comes to our own Marxist tradition we have to acknowledge the debt of Marxist ethics to the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. Key moral and political principles of Marxism, such as egalitarianism1 and liberation from injustice2, have their roots in religious ideas.

Christianity and Secularism

There is current a great deal of focus on Islamic fundamentalist ideology and its relation to modern secularism. But the modern concept of secularism that has developed since the advent of the Enlightenment is also the motor for much Christian reactionary thought.

The Christian “protest” against the secularism of society in the “west” in the modern (in the philosophical sense) era has taken two main forms. The first is a splitting off of certain ideas into the category “religious”, and secondly a response to that split. The first reaction can be mainly characterised as Protestant, whilst the second response is the conservative Catholic approach.

Religious ideas have been asserted as counter to modern ideas and therefore have a reactionary nature. This is predominately expressed in conservative Protestant Evangelicalism, which is found worldwide but developed its particularly political form in the southern part of the United States and within the US Republican Party in the last few decades.

Conservative Evangelicalism appears counter-cultural, because of its need to proclaim its “faith” against the world. Though an early Protestant theological hero Karl Barth was a social democrat and an active opposer of the Nazis, the tendency of the Evangelical strand that developed from his thought has been towards an increasingly narrow conception
of faith-based life.

Some liberal Protestantism has tried to develop a more progressive idea of counter-culture, an example being the “death of God” movement in the 60s [believing God once lived as Jesus, but has how died, God is an historical influence, not a living influence]. This liberal strand however eventually collapsed into secular politics. And that in turn provided justification for the conservative Evangelicals to be even more reactionary, the liberals’ “failure” being the proof that any wider conceptions of faith would lead to dissolution.

Since the Reformation, from the German Lutheran doctrines of the state, to Puritanism, to the use of Methodism in Britain, Protestantism has sought an accommodation of the more radical egalitarian ideas of individual faith into the status quo of class society. This persists today in many of the modern evangelical movements, whose emphasis on personal salvation often goes along with a quietism in social and political matters.

The acceptance of faith as overwhelmingly a personal (as opposed to public) matter by Christians is always a sign of conservatism. So whilst this conservatism may not lead to bombing abortion clinics or calling for referenda on gay marriage, it represents a use of faith to justify the existing social order and to glorify it.

The Roman Catholic reaction to modern ideas has been a history of repression. Modernist heresies were being condemned well in the 20th century! Even now, apart from a couple of decades following on from the Second Vatican Council, the majority view within institutional Catholicism is that it would be best if the modern world went away. Apparently not only should the Reformation not have happened, but neither should have the Enlightenment.

This unexamined view of the “eternal truths” of the Catholic Church leads to two distortions.

Firstly it privileges a certain period of theological thought, before western modern
philosophical development, as the main framework for religious ideas. This has lead to the absurdities of a church trying to impose mediaeval ideas on a late capitalist world.

It is even more absurd if you are aware of the history of ideas in the Catholic Church, where it is as normal for the institution to subsume contemporary ideas and alternative philosophical systems into its thought as to challenge them. The most well known example is the use of Aristotlean philosopical systems by Thomas Aquinas in “scholasticism”1.

Secondly the belief that the Church is the receptacle of “eternal truth” leaves unanalysed the way in which modern ideas — some progressive, many reactionary — have influenced Church theologians. Theologians who have tried to relate their thought to the modern world by consciously using secular and contemporary ideas have fallen foul of the Vatican (which massively centralised its power in the 20th century, most notably under Pius X11, “Hitler’s Pope”).

This centralised power has suppressed progressive modern understandings of Catholicism, from the social democracy of Hans Kung to Liberation Theology. Yet often it is precisely a modern understanding of the church’s position in a more secular world (as an increasingly isolated and irrelevant power block in many European nations for example) that has made Conservative theologians claim their high ground.

In reality what is happening is a battle between progressive and reactionary religion, with the reactionaries denying that the progressives are really religious. The recent election of Pope Benedict by a conclave stuffed full of appointees of Pope John Paul is a continuation of this sad story.

Secularism and Fundamentalism today

If we are looking for explanations of why there is an upsurge in “fundamentalisms” we have to look at the nature of capitalist society.

There are greater tensions in the construction of social identity in late capitalism because selling one’s labour is more self-consciously a global business.

Communication technology allows increased globalisation in itself, but also allows you and your fellow workers to know about it! Your family, your culture, your nationality is expected to fit in around your place as a producer and consumer of goods and services.

This is not new but it is more widespread, a phenomenon that covers more countries and continents, as the industrial proletariat grows worldwide.

Hence it is unsurprising that identity politics and nationalism are key focuses for much contemporary political debate. Rather than acknowledge the stark fact of our existence as economic units, at the mercy of global market forces, many people use religious ideas to give a more communal and cultural explanation, indeed a more human explanation, of their place in the world.

As Marx said, “Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”3

Fundamentalism represents a “religious” expression for the modern problem of rootless ness. In the 21st century we could perhaps update the function of religion from being the heart of a heartless world to one of providing roots in a rootless world. And secularism, rather than capitalism, is seen as the enemy — the thing that takes away the social solidarity.

Fundamentalist religious reactionaries see the mayhem that capitalism is doing to previously existing social relations. Their answer is the establishment of a theocracy.

We perceive this as going back to mediaeval times, but if you look at what they actually
want, it is a theocracy of a particularly modern form. The irony of fundamentalism is that it is a modern religious phenomenon responding to modernism.

The use of religious tradition in a simplified way, as a badge of belonging, is a feature of fundamentalism. Often the key doctrines of fundamentalist movements are at best tangential to the mainstream of the religious tradition they are based on. Often the “religious” symbols and ideas adopted are explicitly ideologically reactionary.

Examples are obviously the veil in the Islamic tradition (an ideological symbol of the oppression of women), “family values” in the Christian tradition (ideologically oppressive of women and queers), and the cult of Rama in the Hindu tradition (ideologically symbolic of the glorification of “masculinity”).

The fact that what we are dealing with in fundamentalism is a small aspect of a religious tradition (and consciously reactionary developments of it), make any generalised attack on religion a futile way of dealing with the threat of fundamentalism. And a generalised attack on religion may undermine those within the religion itself who are challenging fundamentalism.

As socialists we need to meet this ideological threat in an appropriate ideological way — with an understanding of its social and economic causes roots. If these are not clear to us then we have some work to do.

There have been studies that show the cult of Rama is one supported mainly by displaced provincial workers who have moved from the countryside to the booming Indian urban centres to work in skilled occupations. The family values ideology in Christianity has already been the focus of late twentieth century feminist and sociological explanations about the role of women and capitalism and it would be interesting to see possible explanations of the homophobia and how that fits in to capitalist development. And as for the veil and Islam… where do we begin? The causes there are multiple.

Our response to the use of religious symbols in reactionary ways should not be to attack symbols. We should attack the underlying ideology. That is why we were right not to support bans on the veil. Indeed because such things are religious symbols we have to be very careful how we deal with them. To respond to the question of the veil with an unfocused defence of secularism, risks uniting our opposition, by making the issue into something other than it is — the right to religious expression, for example. We will never make the ideological impact we want to make.

We should be making the ideological points about the oppression of women against, alongside and within religious communities. As socialists our aim should be to split religious communities on political lines. So we argue against religious bigots, as we would argue against any bigot. We argue alongside religious people who are progressive as we would argue the case with any other people we make common cause with. We argue within religious communities, if it is appropriate to do so, in support of progressive reforms of their organisation as we would in any other organisation.

Church and state

Bourgeois liberal democracies can accommodate religion in many ways and there are different models of secularism. But the model we take for granted and do not question because its ideological presumption is so prevailing is that religion is a private matter and that public space is a no go area for an individual’s religious belief.

This is a liberal bourgeois idea that may be preferable to a theocratic model but is based on assumptions about human nature that have little to do with socialism. The personal/political split, an assumption of liberal bourgeois thought, is one of the main ways that the ruling class isolate ideas they do not like. And is a pillar of bourgeois liberalism, supported by many in the socialist tradition, that this separation of the personal and political in matters of religion, the separation of church and state is wholly a good thing.

It is obviously more democratic for the state to control education, health and other social provision than unelected church representatives. However I would like to question whether the main democratic kernel of this idea should be retained whilst discarding the husk of a rigid interpretation of it as an overriding principle. Empirical evidence can show that adopting this abstract view of religion and politics is counter-productive, and that whatever its relevance in the 18th century as the underpinning of republicanism and bourgeois democracy it is less clear that it is helpful now in deciding what action socialists should take on questions involving religion.

Having a constitutional separation of church from state is presumed to curtail the undue influence of undemocratic church institutions and hence of religion in general, but very basic empirical evidence undermines this presumption, both formally and popularly.

Look at the United States of America, one of the countries with the highest percentage of religious observation/church attendance, and a massive religious right with popular political power and influence within the Republican Party, yet with an impeccably secular state.

In India, another secular state, communal politics based on religious affiliation has a massive influence on contemporary politics and in the development of political parties such as the BJP. On the other hand the UK, which has no formal seperation of church and state, though it has one of the lowest figures for regular religious observance, also has a political system where the influence of religion in party politics and popular campaigning is minor in comparison with the US or India.

This world and the next

Socialists often use the argument that religion must be inherently reactionary because it discounts the material reality of “this world” for the promises of the next. But this would not be understood as a key feature of their faith by many religious believers in the UK today.

There are many different views on materiality in different religious traditions, and these are often contradictory. Progressive Christianity in the later half of the 20th century has attempted to recover the materiality of the incarnational aspects of

Christian theology and holistic concepts of religion in general, including eco
spirituality and Goddess traditions. This has been one of the reasons that “green” ideas have become more popular and have more resonance in political discourse.

The idea of social justice, including criticism of capitalism as an economic system and the rights of workers to organise as an integral part of Christian morality has been a significant feature of the approach of a strand of Roman Catholic theology in the past 100 years. It is also a significant feature of the “non conformist” tradition and has some purchase in both the Anglo-Catholic and even Evangelical traditions of the Anglican church in Britain. Islam and Judaism have their own traditions of social justice.

These ideas are not of course socialism, but in their solidarity and activism for social change and their involvement in progressive social movements there are points of connection. To relate to people motivated to political involvement by these ideas by saying they only care about the next world is crass. To say that their concern about poverty and injustice is somehow invalid because they have religious beliefs or practices is counterproductive to any political engagement with them.

In the “Make Poverty History’ milieu there is an incredible crossover between socialists and globally minded religious people. On issues of immigration and asylum, in the experience of religious communities, often comprising predominately immigrant communities themselves, there is again a meeting point. We have to change from an attitude of belittling to one of respect.

Towards a materialist spirituality?

Marx himself saw the supersession of theism and atheism as the most important historical framework for understanding religion and politics. Living without God is clearly presumed by Marx as inevitable under socialism. This living without God, however, should not be confused with atheism as such. Atheism is the active denial of theism. The denial of theism is a matter of consciousness, a matter of abstraction, for the most part. The key issue is to deal with people’s real lives.

“Religious estrangement as such takes place only in the sphere of consciousness, of man’s inner life, but economic estrangement is that of real life — its supersession therefore embraces both aspects. Clearly the nature of the movement in different countries initially depends on whether the actual and acknowledged life of the people has its being more in consciousness or in the external world, in ideal or in real life. Communism begins with atheism, but atheism is initially far from being communism and is for the most part an abstraction. The philanthropy of atheism is therefore at first nothing more than an abstract philosophical philanthropy, while that of communism is at once real and directly bent towards action” 4

Both theism and atheism are superseded by socialism. Atheism asserted as a bourgeois rationalism as a counter to mediaeval religious superstition may be progress, but it is the supersession of theism and atheism is the aim. This supersession allows the possibility of reclaiming the natural and the human and is from the false dichotomy of idealism and crude materialism. Its hallmark is the emphasis on practical, sensuous human activity.

“Bourgeois rationalism lops down the branches of religion but leaves its roots untouched”5

Therefore as Marxists we should relate to religion as a social phenomena. If we only relate to it with negative and critical propaganda we are relating to its leaves not its roots — we are substituting bourgeois atheism for Marxist demystification. To promote atheism as bourgeois rationalism is not a way to relate to religion as a social phenomena that is part of many working class peoples lives. All we are doing is imposing the norms of bourgeois thought rather than promoting a socialist understanding that makes sense of the world.

It is important and right in this day and age to make the case for universal human values, and reject arguments of cultural relativism. But in order to do this we need a more holistic concept of reason and rationality than the narrow ones that bourgeois society allows.

It is us as socialists who are the real heirs of the Enlightenment and modern thought.

And as dialectical materialists with a philosophy of history we should recognise when it is time to critique the concept of bourgeois reason in order to progress beyond it. We should be expanding the concept of the human to include the things that bourgeois society splits off into the territory of the “irrational”, the “personal”, the “private” — things like the emotional and the spiritual aspects of our humanity. As socialists we should be prepared to consider whether there is a place for a materialist spirituality, that is a spirituality that is part of our human existence and the natural world.


1. Despite the mainly reactionary nature of Christianity in the modern era many of our contemporary democratic and egalitarian ideas arose from religious traditions. Indeed both Christianity and Islam arose out of a rejection of a tribal concept of religion into something universal. The conception of human rights, the idea we have entitlements because we are born human, has a pedigree that goes back to the tumult of radical religious ideas of the early modern period, for example the ideas of the Ranters, Diggers and Levellers in England at the time of the Civil War. The emerging bourgeois forces developed these radical egalitarian claims of freedom and equality (expressed often in religious terms) into the ideals of liberty and democracy.

2. Apparently contemporary secular ideas of progress and liberation can be traced to a predominately religious heritage. And many of those religious ideas themselves were developed in dialogue with a myriad of traditions. The obvious example is the debt the Christian and Islamic traditions owe ancient Greek thought.

Much philosophy of history and dialectical thought, both essential aspects of the ideas of Karl Marx can be traced back to Jewish and Christian religious traditions. The dialectic of the Western philosophical tradition owes its origin to the development of Neoplatonist ideas in mediaeval Christian thought, and to a degree to dialogue with Indian philosophical thought. The Neoplatonist ideas themselves were preserved by Islamic scholars who were keepers of many of the texts of ancient Greek and Roman thought. And historical ideas of salvation and social justice, based in the biblical tradition of both the Old and New Testament,s have lead to teleological conceptions of history that underlie not only Marxism, but most modern conceptions of progress. The human liberation that Marxism promises, its morality, its politics, is clearly in this tradition

3. K Marx “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”

4. K Marx – “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”

5. F A Ridley Socialism and Religion

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