Is Secularism Thin?

I just read Michael Walzer’s “The Paradox of Liberation”.  The paradox of the title is that national liberation movements that were secular in character found themselves challenged and subverted by fundamentalist religious movements in three instances Walzer discusses: Algeria, Israel and India.  In each case the European-educated elite who threw off colonialism were motivated by secular ideals of justice, equal rights, and emancipation but thirty years into the project they found themselves threatened by tribal, orthodox religious parties: the ultra-orthodox in Israel, the Islamists in Algeria and the BJP in India.

Walzer is himself a man of the enlightenment left so he is troubled and thinks that the issue may be that secularism is too thin, so the fundamentalists step into the breach.  You can imagine what he means: that secularism ducks the big questions, that it doesn’t sacralize fundamental relationships, that nobody is willing to die for it.  In a fight between a movement whose members are willing to die for it and one whose members are not willing to die for it, you would be wise to put your money on the former. (Unless the latter have much, much more money in which case it’s anybody’s game.)


On the other hand do we really know what a religion is?   Sure we all have a sense of the family resemblance of the big Abrahamic faiths — if there’s a man in a beard or an unusual hat talking about a creator deity and giving rules for how to keep that deity happy and promising a reward after death for making him happy, and it is all linked to books purporting to tell amazing stories of the ancient middle east, then it’s a religion.  But surely that’s a shallow and essentialist way of looking at things — especially the hat part.   Essentialist because it assumes what’s worth arguing about, which is whether you can motivate people without appeal to forged ancient books and anthropomorphic creators.  Shallow because it avoids the personal question.  If religion is anything it is how each of us answers the question “How should I live?”  “Given that I must die what is important?”  “What do I owe to my fellow?”  If religion is whatever answers these questions, then it’s at least an open question whether the Abrahamic faiths as they currently stand are even religions, much less whether they are the only religions (compare Marxism, nationalism, consumerism, progress, art, the family etc. etc.)

If that is the case then how do we understand Walzer’s paradox — a thin secularism unable to do battle with a robust orthodoxy?

A step towards understanding the paradox is imagining how it would be to solve it.  One attempt to solve it would be to deck out secularism with its substitute for religious culture.  Have ceremonies of commitment to reason perhaps or gather in the Temple of Understanding to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin.  Whenever people try this it seems to fail though and to feel (Walzer’s apt word) like kitsch.

What does the failure teach us?  There is something wrong with reifying “culture”.  Secularists look at the vibrant faith of the orthodox and want to know what they have to fight it. It looks like — nothing.  It looks like secularists have no culture, at least not the kind that enchants the heart and draws people together into a communal embrace.  It looks like there is no reformed Jewish substitute for the Hasidic rebbe’s table, and no story from secular India as captivating as the Ramayana.

But this is a mistake.

Culture is easy to spot far away and long ago — but the culture we are making right now is invisible.  Every decision we make, every thing we say in an effort to be memorable, or persuasive, or beautiful — the way we make love to our lovers and kiss our children — that is our culture.

Is it thin?  God forbid that it should be thin.  Every second we are are enacting our culture.   If our children love us, if our fellow citizens trust us, if anything we say is worth listening to or worth repeating then we have a culture.

Is it secular?

Walzer says memorably that the only thing it makes sense to call “secular” is a government.  If it doesn’t make sense to call an individual or a marriage or a family or a corporation secular it doesn’t make sense to call it religious either.  Surely each of these institutions that we secrete by living — much as a caterpillar builds its cocoon — is a mixture of an axis of faith and an axis of reason.  Yet “faith” and “reason” are loaded terms.  To be even clearer we could say: there are things we are in a position to explain to our fellows, things we are in a position to explain to ourselves, and things we are not (yet) in a position to explain to anybody, but we live by them all the same.

The enlightenment fantasy may be said then to be that there is nothing about us we cannot explain to everybody.  This is clearly false.  Yet the idea that there is a shadow side to ourselves and our relationships — call if faith or myth — can be frightening.  It can make us feel vulnerable.

If secularism — whatever that is — is able to look at its own vulnerability squarely there is nothing thin about it.

The only thing thin about it is its fear of being thin.