September 29, 2011

Secularism or how to change the subject

One of the great myths of modernity is that the battle between secularist politics and religion is a battle in which one side roars about evolution and science and the other counters with revelation and faith. To argue this is to frankly misunderstand the nature of both secularism and religion. It is not conclusive but often instructive to look at the origins of discussions. Mark Lilla in his study of the rise of secular politics identifies the important switch as being made, not by those who opposed religion, but by those who wished to ignore it. Lilla's argument is that the seventeenth century thinkers who created modern secular politics- specifically Hobbes and Locke- did so by suggesting that those who discussed the nexus between religion and politics did not offer the wrong answers, they got the questions wrong.

The traditional set of questions about the interrelationship between religion and politics focussed on the divine nature of rule and rules and the roles of church and state within an entity that recognised the authority of God. Calvinists and Lutherans alike wished the realm to be based upon divine law- or as William Sedgewick said for example to create an English or a European Isreal. Hobbes in Leviathan- according to Lilla- said that the problem with this wasn't that it was wrong but that it answered the wrong question. For Hobbes the sixteenth and seventeenth century had shown that polities built upon religion swiftly became polities built upon confessional identity. He argued that the real question for men to understand, if they were to enter politics, was not how religion and politics should relate, but what were the reasons that men believed. He turned the study of the relationship of politics and religion from a question of theory- a question of bringing theology into the world- into a question about anthopology, a question about how religion influenced the world.

Lilla's complication of the secularist narrative is not enough: I reccomend Katznelson et al's recent volume on the subject. However I think it is important because it establishes a feature of secular thinking that is less understood today. Grotius famously argued that his theories were independent of his own religious beliefs. He argued this, and Hobbes argued this, because they believed that conflict over religious belief had rendered European society after the reformation impossible to live within. You may disagree with their point of view- however the historical change caused by their reaction to the English Civil War and Thirty Years War is profound. The profoundity is not caused by either thinker's attack on religion (Hobbes's religion is a fascinating subject) but by the fact that what they were interested in was religion's role in politics. In this sense, they pick up on the interest of Machiavelli centuries earlier who also was interested in asking the question, what does religion do to society, rather than asking the question, what would God ask me to do within politics.

I think Lilla is right to mark this as an important move in the argument. As my citation of Machiavellli suggests- there are antecedents to this train of thinking. But the suggestion that secular politics represents not so much a change of thought as a change of subject is one that I think is interesting and worthy of consideration. Definitely looking at today's politics and seventeenth century politics, the main difference I can see is the refocussing of the subjects that politics talks about. One of the difficulties of working on earlier periods is looking across that chasm- between a politics of economics and society to a politics of confession and godliness.