Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

'From the Ashes of Political Idealism, Religion Has Risen, Seductive Because It Offers a Simplistic Division of Right from Wrong That Suits Both Political Spin and Political Vision': "Can Politics Remain Secular?" We Asked for Last Year's Webb Essay Competition. It Must, Argues the Winner, Katy Long, Because If We Continue to Pander to Blind Faith, Our Vision of a Just Society Will Die

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

'From the Ashes of Political Idealism, Religion Has Risen, Seductive Because It Offers a Simplistic Division of Right from Wrong That Suits Both Political Spin and Political Vision': "Can Politics Remain Secular?" We Asked for Last Year's Webb Essay Competition. It Must, Argues the Winner, Katy Long, Because If We Continue to Pander to Blind Faith, Our Vision of a Just Society Will Die

Article excerpt

The politics of our secular modern age is the "art of the possible". In fact, politics might be better framed as a contest for the ownership of the universal ideal of a just society. Justice, after all, is as much the aim of sharia law as the goal of liberal democracy. In western Europe and much of the rest of the world throughout the 20th century, the pursuit of such justice through the political was presented as a purely secular paradigm: post-Enlightenment reason illuminating the superstitions and injustices of religion to the benefit of mankind and the progress of human civilisation.

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In the first years of the 21st century, we have watched a series of events unfold, punctuated by the rhetoric of religious fundamentalism, that has torn through such fabrications of western secularism. Now, the media and the political elite construct a "war on terror", a "clash of civilisations"--the splintered division of the world into the faithful and infidels, Islamic and Christian, Christian and Islamic. Religion, it seems, is creeping back into the political, a sphere claimed as a prize by the secular in 18th- and 19th-century Europe.

Yet politics has never divided absolutely from religion; the secular transformation is at best incomplete. Religion remains the opiate of the people. Its powers of sedation are matched only by its power to inspire the zealous and the dogmatic. It is for these reasons that politics and religion have always remained linked. The manipulation of power, after all, requires a justifying ideology. What better ordering of the universe than a divine one?

Politics cannot simply "remain" secular. It must first become fully secularised. And for this to happen, it must be recognised that existing secular politics is failing to address the challenges of the modern age. The religion of the 21st century is comprehensible only as a response, of both the powerful and the powerless, to poverty, inequality and injustice that is wholly modern. Religious thought provides explanation for suffering, even demands it in the pursuit of a "next world". The religious may place their ultimate faith in God. The secular see only human agency in human misery, a cruel expose both of politicians' failings and the disempowerment of the majority of the world's people; there is no refuge in fate.

This is not to deny the achievements of secular politics: for example, universal human rights, with their increasingly global recognition, find their foundations in the ethics of secular humanism. Similarly, doctrines of popular sovereignty are secular in principle. Yet the west should be wary of taking too orientalist a view of these "universal" secular truths, founded as they are upon a particular Judaeo-Christian heritage. Internationally, politics is not secular: the Middle Eastern Islamic states (from "evil" Iran to western-allied Saudi Arabia) define and contain political activity through religious maxims. Israel owes its very existence to the connections between politics and religion, while the 60 years of bloody violence which have followed the usurpation of Palestine are proof of the dangerous and destructive powers of religion, particularly because the absolute truth of the religious is by necessity an exclusive creed. In such countries, politics and power are understood and constantly underlined through refractions of religious belief that have an impact upon every aspect of global politics.

Even in the heartland of proclaimed secularism--the formal politics of western Europe--sceptical thinkers can find flaws in this claimed separation of the religious from the political. The close relationship between German church and state is demonstrated by the payment of church tax to fund Protestant and Catholic organisations. Politically, many of the parties which have governed Europe since the Second World War have approached topics such as social justice through recourse to Christianity, witness the German, Swedish or Norwegian Christian Democrats. …

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