Secularisation: A Matter of Common Interest and Concern for Muslims and Christians


Recent events in France bring to the fore once again the tensions which can exist between secular conceptions of society and the desire for a public expression of religious belief, in this case symbolically expressed through the wearing of a burqa. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has decided to draw his line in the sand, arguing that the burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women and should not be tolerated by a secular society. Whatever one may think of the significance of the burqa, it would seem that freedom of religion in such a secular conception of society only extends to the private realm, but falls short of full public expression. One might ask how Catholics would feel if traditional nuns’ habits were declared by the state to be symbols of medieval oppression of women or Corpus Christi processions were judged to be religious superstition. For the person of faith, religious expression cannot be contained within some private world, but naturally and rightfully finds expression in the public arena.

At the heart of the matter is what it means for a society or state to be secular. It is useful to recall the opening words of John Milbank’s work, Theology and Social Theory, ―Once, there was no ‗secular’.[1]Certainly in the West the movement from Christendom to modern secular states has been long and painful, perhaps more so in predominantly Catholic countries than in their Protestant counterparts. And it has given rise to two very diverse readings of the historical process. The first reading views the rise of secular society as a clear sign of decline, a falling away from religious belief and practice, and a collapse into moral relativism and social and cultural decay. This type of reading is common among Church figures who seek to promote a return to the past, where religious belief went hand in hand with strong moral and cultural norms. They tend to focus on the decline of God’s presence in the public sphere and bemoan the falling away of religious practice. The second and opposed reading can be found among the proponents of secularism who view it as a narrative of progress, a sloughing off of the constraints of the past, particularly religious constraints which are viewed as so much superstition, ignorance and fanaticism. The dead hand of tradition is replaced by the march of progress driven by science and technology. These readings focus on the decline in religious practice as a natural consequence of science and modernization. This Enlightenment narrative has been revived with evangelical passion by Richard Dawkins and others.[2]

Clearly more nuance is needed. The rise of secular society is neither purely decline nor progress, but a mix of both with important distinctions needing to be made. In his recent work, A Secular Age, Catholic philosophy Charles Taylor has provided some important distinctions into the discussions of secularization that help move the discussion beyond the two readings above. He begins his account with a carefully nuanced account of secularisation, distinguishing three distinct meanings that can be given to the term: (1) the withdrawal of God from ―public spaces, for example through the separation of Church and state; (2) a decline in religious practice; and (3) ―a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.[3] As Taylor notes a society can be secular in the sense of (1) but still have relatively high rates of religious practice, as for example in the USA, and so not display secularization in the sense of (2). However, Taylor focuses his concern on the third sense: ―the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one possibility among others … Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives.[4]

It is worth considering each of these matters in turn.

The first concerns the relationship between the religious and political realms, and the so-called separation of Church and state. This is a complex and historically profound issue, certainly on the basis of the western experience, encompassing the collapse of Christendom, the Reformation, the hundred year wars of religion and so on. While some Christians bemoan the lack of political influence of the Churches under such a separation, it is worth noting that it also serves to protect religion from undue political interference and manipulation. Both sides of the divide have a propensity to use the other for their own ends. Indeed the whole history of Christendom can be viewed as an arm wrestle between Church and state to see who could control whom. Both sides need to respect their boundaries, a process which may require constant negotiation and debate. The overriding concern of the state should be the common good for its citizens. The notion of a separation of Church and state can help promote the common good by allowing for religious tolerance and freedom of religious expression.[5] However it can become ideological if religious voices are excluded from contributing to the debate over the common good because of their religious beliefs. This is not separation but exclusion.

Let us consider the present situation in France. The state has a concern for the common good of its citizens. It is faced with two competing principles. One is the rights of its citizens to freedom from discrimination and oppression, in this case the treatment of women whose wearing of the burqa is viewed as oppressive and discriminatory. The second is the right to freedom of religious expression, wherein the burqa may be viewed as an expression of religious commitment. This is clearly an instance which requires negotiation and debate to decide, not once and for all time but in the contingencies of the present situation, where the boundaries may lie. What is important in this process is who will be able to participate in this negotiation and debate. In particular, will the voices of Moslem women be heard or excluded? To exclude them would be a violation of the very principles the state is seeking to uphold.

The complexity of these matters is well captured in the second half of the encyclical, Deus caritas est by Benedict XVI.[6] He upholds: the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere. The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated. (DCE, n.28)

The working out of this ―distinct but interrelated is not trivial and it is clear that Benedict rejects any return to Christendom wherein the Church could impose its will onto the political realm. It involves multiple mediations, through personal conversion and cultural transformation before its presence is felt in the political realm.[7]

Taylor’s second sense of the term, secularization, is the decline in religious practice. This is certainly a feature of Catholic and Christian experience in the west, particularly in Europe. However, as Taylor notes, it is not an automatic consequence of a separation of Church and state. The US has a long history of such a separation, but continues to have much higher levels of religious practice than in Europe. One might make the same comment about Turkey which has a stridently secular constitution but continues to have high levels of religious practice, and currently has a religiously associated government. Taylor suggests there is a tendency among some religious leaders to imply that the decline in religious practice is a consequence of the separation of Church and state. However if the empirical evidence suggests otherwise, then the cause of declining religious practice should be sought elsewhere. In fact, Taylor suggests, it is a complex issue, with wide social and cultural dimensions to it.

Indeed there may be good religious reasons why one would not want too close a connection between Church and state in this regard. Social support can easily slip over into social coercion. Then religion is no longer a free response from the believer, but simply social convention at best and social compliance at worst. It can quickly lead to religious intolerance and religious strife where different religious traditions seek to win over political power to their religious cause. This was the long experience of Western Europe in the post-reformation era – perhaps we can find some similarities in tensions between Sunni and Shiite traditions in the Middle East. Such behaviour only furthered the agenda of those who sought to separate Church and state and sullied the public perception of religion seeing it as a cause of civil unrest and the breakdown of the common good. If the price for this is some decline in religious practice because such practice is not socially sanctioned it may be a price worth paying.

If the relationship between the first meaning of secularisation and the second is complex, perhaps we should turn to the third meaning of the term that Taylor explores, that is, ―a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.[8] Taylor’s massive work is an analysis of the social and cultural forces behind this shift, notably the move to the subject in philosophy and the subsequent interiorization of sources of authority, a theme explored in his earlier work, Sources of the Self.[9] Certainly the present outcome of this shift is an intellectual climate where belief in the existence of God is viewed an irrational and/or intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt. This is evident in works such as Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion[10] and Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great.[11]

This is certainly an area where both Christians and Moslems have common cause. Both religions have profound philosophical traditions and resources to bring to this debate, which needs to be conducted at both a critical cultural and popular cultural level. Belief in God is not unreasonable and in fact there are persuasive if not compelling arguments that can be made for this. Perhaps we could have a new collaboration in the area of natural theology, just as Christian theologians drew from the work of Moslem commentators on Aristotle in the Middle Ages. However, such an invocation of reason can only be successful to the extent that we address internally the more blatantly irrational elements within our own religious communities, particularly forms of fundamentalism which flatten out religious experience to the literal reading of religious texts. This is where religious prejudice gets real traction.

In one of his final essays the Catholic theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan referred to ―(1) a sacralisation to the dropped and (2) a sacralisation to be fostered; (3) a secularization to be welcomed and (4) a secularization to be resisted.[12] As Taylor’s work indicates there are different aspects to secularization some of which we can foster for the common good and others which we must resist. And in some instances this will involve debate, discussion and inevitably compromise. These are matters of common interest and common concern for Moslems and Christians on an issue which affects both our communities. Perhaps it can be a matter of cooperation and common effort as well.

BibliographyDawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. 1st ed. New York: Twelve, 2007.Lonergan, Bernard J. F. “Sacralization and Secularization.” In Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980, edited by Robert Croken and R. M. Doran, 259-81. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2004.Milbank, John. Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Cambridge, Mass., USA: B. Blackwell, 1991.

Ormerod, Neil. “The Argument Has Vast Implications: Part II of Deus Caritas Est.” In Identity and Mission in Catholic Agencies, edited by Neil Ormerod, 67-81. Strathfield: St Pauls, 2008.

———. “In Defence of Natural Theology: Bringing God into the Public Realm.” Irish Theological Quarterly 71 (2007): 227-41.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

———. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Footnote[1] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Cambridge, Mass., USA: B. Blackwell, 1991), 9.[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006)[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.[4] Ibid., 3

[5] Again it is worth noting how slow the Catholic Church was in acknowledging these freedom, prior to Vatican II. The major figure arguing for change, John Courtney Murray, suffered significant censure before the Council, only to have his key ideas incorporated into the final Council documents.

[6] The full text of the encyclical can be found at

[7] See Neil Ormerod, “The Argument Has Vast Implications: Part II of Deus Caritas Est,” in Identity and Mission in Catholic Agencies, ed. Neil Ormerod (Strathfield: St Pauls, 2008), 67-81, for an analysis of the argument of the encyclical.

[8] Taylor, A Secular Age, 3. See also Neil Ormerod, “In Defence of Natural Theology: Bringing God into the Public Realm,” Irish Theological Quarterly 71 (2007), 227-41 and ―Lonergan and Taylor on Natural Theology forthcoming in Irish Theological Quarterly.

[9] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[10] Dawkins, The God Delusion.

[11] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 1st ed. (New York: Twelve, 2007).

[12] Bernard J. F. Lonergan, “Sacralization and Secularization,” in Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980, ed. Robert Croken

Professor Neil Ormerod, Australian Catholic University

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