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Eleven theses on secularism

Secularism is a matter of life and death for democracy. A matter of survival for both is now a crescendo of equal, political and material, power – one that can no longer be postponed.

A matter of life and death

Epic struggle of church vs. state. Tim Engleman/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Secularism has become a matter of life and death. Literally so. It is not by chance that it constitutes the most crucial matter of democracy. This is true even if we have forgotten about it, even if we have taken secularism for granted – to the point that even the prestigious 'secular' thought has theorized its overcoming by means of its realization (the inescapable Hegelian Aufhebung): the so-called post-secular society.

On 7 January, Islamic terrorism brought democracies back to reality. The massacre of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial team is a declaration of war against freedom of expression, secularism, disenchantment, modernity. That is, the furthest and deepest logical and historical stratifications that make up the foundations of democracy.

That the very foundations of democracy were at stake was proven by the subsequent enlightement-based and republican outburst of the people of Paris and the whole of France, who had the greatest street demonstration ever recorded since the heroic days of the Liberation. This widespread feeling – even more significantly as it was unconscious – represented the peak of lucidity and rational understanding of the event: the terrorists have aimed at the heart of 'western' freedoms as freedom tout court. That is, the consistency of disenchantment.

This is a clash of civilizations that does not set Islam against the Judeo-Christian world, but one that divides and creates conflict in both as well as in all other geopolitical-cultural constellations. In fact, it is not a holy war between religions, but the war of the Sacred against the autos nomos: that is, Homo sapiens’ self-sovereignty replacing on this earth the eteros nomos – i.e. God’s sovereignty as the source of legitimacy in dictating everyone’s laws, values, rights and obligations.

The sacred versus disenchantment: this war opposes the uncompromising secularist and the accommodating secularist far more than the believer and the unbeliever, and highlights the two major historical 'parties' of the west, that of consistency and that of hypocrisy with respect to disenchantment and its logic.

Secularism is a corollary of disenchantment; freedom to the point of ridiculing all power is the corollary of both. It is the full manifestation of the autos nomos, whose climax is therefore the libertarian (and libertine) proclamation: ni Dieu ni maître.

The ostracism of God

Sign at Tunis demonstration against extremism. Emir Ben Ayed/Demotix. All rights reserved.Ni Dieu… If in the public sphere religion is an added value, as Habermas repeated for years in a crescendo, the 'God argument' must have full legitimacy in the political discussion, in election rallies, in television debates. Consequently, this same argument has full right to resonate in parliament as a motivation to bring forward, approve, or reject a bill.

It would be paradoxical and incongruous if a valid justification for deciding, in the dia-logos among citizens, whom to choose as representatives of our sovereignty, were then banned from the discussion by which the 'deputies' of that same sovereignty come to enact the law.

If God’s will constitutes a good democratic reason to establish norms binding all citizens, then it should all the more count as something to appeal to in Court and its verdicts, by which the general and abstract norm is applied to concrete single cases.

Tidings. Daniel Oines/Flickr. Some rights reserved.But is there anyone who calls themselves secular (no matter with what limiting adjectives), willing to admit that we should condemn or absolve a defendant because 'God wills it'? Theocratic claims would be perfectly satisfied.

The public sphere is one and indivisible, also and precisely because of the wealth and plurality of its articulations, which make it a circular complexity of communicating spheres. If the nomos of God is permissible in one of them, it cannot be excluded from the others. Therefore there is only one alternative. Either the exile of God from the public sphere, or the irruption of His sovereign will – be it dictated as sharia or otherwise – in every fibre of social life. 

Every 'opening' of secularism, opening cracks and leaks in the rigour of its logic, is a 'Trojan horse' of the theocratic drives to colonize collective existence. This is why the ostracism of God, His word and His symbols from any place where the citizen plays the main role, is inherent to democracy: this includes school, or rather, it mainly includes school as the place of education and formation of civic consciousness par excellence. The believer is left with churches, mosques, synagogues, and the private sphere 'in interiore homine'.

The crucial link

Church vs state, who gets the spare bulb? JP Chan/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Because it is its foundation – the historical background that is also its logical pre-supposition – secularism is the higher-level and preliminary criterion for the solution of the problems of democracy. It is the crucial link in the unfolding, until completion, of the autos nomos in its development by filiation: disenchantment, secularism, and then sovereignty-of-each-and-everyone.

Here’s the proof. To 'establish one's own law' instead of obeying the eternal law of God, by making Homo sapiens the creator and lord of the norm, has an overwhelming logic. Once assumed – that is, once unchained from the strains of divine eteros – it must be progressively embodied in the subsequent historical conquests of universalization of the human autos: from the secularism of 'etsi Deus non daretur' for monarchs, which for subjects sounds like 'cuius regio, eius religio', to the sharing of sovereignty with census-based representative parliaments, to the 'liberté' woven with the 'égalité' and 'fraternité' of the first 'universal' suffrage, to its implementation with women's vote. Either this, or it will regress and disappear in the restoration of the heteronomy of the Sacred. Possibly up to the worst: theocracy.

But who is the eteros, if the Only God has become plural? Since monotheisms have supplanted the tolerant 'pagan' pantheons, hybridizable and interchangeable, the will of God, to work as a social ruler, has had to be One. In order to be recognized by all as a soothing source of sense and safety, the Nomos we owe obedience to must be indisputable, and therefore necessarily One. If it is not cleared in the bud at the stake, if it establishes itself as an alternative interpretation, heresy undermines it irreparably. The Other and High, if not One – if split – becomes polemos, delivered to an interminable ordeal.

But the judgment of God is visible only as a battlefield verdict. So as not to destroy in religious wars the very society it should govern, the sovereignty of the divine Nomos must therefore be neutralized

The survival instinct has forced the European rulers to accept the unholy invasion of secularism, which finally saw the barbarians – the third state and the sans-culottes – take sovereignty over by cutting off the sovereigns' heads. After the establishment of the public sphere in a democratic form, re-legitimating God means inoculating the virus for which the entire journey back, up until religious civil wars, would be a looming and lurking threat, potential and permanent.

Religion is compatible with democracy only if 'tamed'

Woman with placards at Secular Europe rally in London. Peter Marshall/Demotix. All rights reserved.So, religion is compatible with democracy only if available and accustomed to the exile of God from the events and conflicts of citizenship, only if ready to practice the first commandment of republican sovereignty: thou shalt not pronounce the name of God in a public place.

Religion is compatible with democracy only if tamed; converted to the absolute autonomy of civil law with respect to religious law. Only if it is persuaded spiritual punishment cannot claim the aid of the secular branch to make it a crime. What’s more, religion must accept the freedom of sin as the right of every citizen: even the mortal sin guaranteed and protected by the law, if that is the wish of the sovereignty of the autos nomos. It must accept and interiorize it.

The religions that are compatible with democracy are therefore docile religions, ones that have given up any militant faith (of sharia and martyrs, or of the Legionaries of Christ and others Catholic movements of 'liberation') that wishes to enforce religious morality. They are submissive religions, ones that have internalized the inferiority of the 'law of God' compared to the sovereign will of the people on this earth.

They are re-formed religions, because they accustom the believer to a life serenely divided between the order of salvation and the order of community life; between personal obedience to divine commandments and the dutiful promotion of everybody else’s freedom to violate them.

The venerated formula "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" is perfectly useless because it does not establish the line between the two areas. Who decides what is God's or Caesar's, God or Caesar? As soon as 'Caesar' is the autos nomos of each-and-everyone, though, no ambiguity can be tolerated: democratic sovereignty is the only sovereign, and it establishes religious freedom as freedom of worship and conscience as long as it does not interfere with the republican freedom, provided the believers take the 'wall of separation' between politics and faith as their own inalienable civic duty.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Thousands of Christians and Muslims attend march for secularism in Beirut. Dana Ballout/Demotix. All rights reserved.Religion compatible with democracy must accept that the latter is Sodom and Gomorrah. It must indeed internalize – as a civic virtue the believer cannot escape – the happy unfolding of sin in the world, even though for the faith it is against nature, or the painful recourse to sin that takes the monopoly over life and death away from God. That, and much more abomination resulting from the bloom of plural freedoms of sovereign citizens. Which was a completely unexpected result when secularism was theorized and established, but is an incontrovertible consequence of the principle.

In 1636, Roger Williams founded Providence and Rhode Island so that they could host Christians that would have killed each other in the old continent, together with native animists and idolaters, Jews that had been considered 'Christ killers' for centuries and even agnostics and atheists, all in complete freedom of conscience and in the unprecedented radical separation of civil and religious authorities. In 1802 Thomas Jefferson, author of the 'Declaration of Independence' and the third President of the United States, sculpted the formula of the wall of separation. When all of this happened, no one thought that single people’s consciences, which were now entrusted with the creation of the law, could aspire to a sexual morality other than that of a 'good family man'. 

And yet today moral relativism is the inescapable corollary of freedom of conscience. Homo sapiens ('imperante laicitate') are irreversibly the lord and master of the world of the norm. Birth, sex, death, the crucial moments and the fundamental aspects of existence have also been removed from the last disguise of eteros nomos: 'natural morality'. The latter is still wielded as an ideological weapon to impose one’s ethics on others, but in the sovereign equality of citizens it finally collapses.

Democratic equality implies every person’s full freedom of choice in relation to birth, sex, and death, provided this does not violate someone else’s identical freedom.

If it wants to remain compatible with democracy, religion must therefore decide not to use the legend of 'natural morality' (or the lie that the foetus is already a 'person' at the time of conception), and thus stop contesting the right of every citizen to euthanasia, contraception, abortion (within six months of pregnancy), not to mention fornication, homosexual marriage, sexual promiscuity according to every taste and preference.

The freedom of religion

First Baptist church in America, founded by Roger Williams in 1638. J. Stephen Conn/Flickr. Some rights reserved.In fact, there is one passionate faith (one only), an even exalted faith and yet still compatible with democracy: one that considers it a duty to God to respect human freedom up to mortal sin and ungodliness, because only the Almighty can decide who are the chosen ones. Filled with this faith, Roger Williams – a Puritan pastor who does not tolerate any Church as hierarchy or power that is not exclusively spiritual – becomes the pioneer and the apostle of secularism in the New World. The promoter of political decision as practical atheism.

The same thing, if parva licet, holds for the sparse Italian Catholics who invited people to vote 'no' in the referendum with which the Popes and their parliamentarian lackeys wanted to repeal the laws establishing divorce and allowing abortion. 

But how many religions are there (excluding single religious consciences endowed with higher, i.e. secular, understanding) that are actually willing to internalize the limits, obligations and spirituality that the autos nomos imposes on the universe of the sacred so that it does not corrode democratic freedoms?

Quang Duc burns himself to death in protest against South Vietnamese government. Malcolm Brown/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The freedom of religion guaranteed by democracy is only a subset of the freedom of conscience and opinion; therefore, it is also freedom from religion, freedom of religious criticism, freedom to ridicule its dogmas as superstitions, its prophets and saints as impostors, its celebrants as fanatics and / or whited sepulchres. In other words and unequivocally: the freedom of religion is also and always freedom to offend religion. 

This is exactly what open or positive 'secularism' rejects and opposes. Behind the catchy adjectives, such secularism fades and damages secularism as a whole, bartering the consistency of the autos nomos and disenchantment with the public recognition of religions, thus passing it off as a civic duty to respect all the claims, interpretations and readings of the Sacred: it is revanchism of the eteros nomos.

Result: Christianities and Hebraisms that (either unwillingly or thanks to a genuine evolution) had bent to, or had matured, the civic loyalty of secularism, are now proliferating – in imitation and emulation of the Muslim communities and their achievements within democratic sovereignties prone to political correctness – militant movements of occupation of civil society and reconquest of the public sphere. As the outpost of the invasion, there is the recognition of the dignity of the Sacred in the form of punishment and prohibition of offense to any religion.

Between offence and criticism

Charlie Hebdo edition, held in Montreal. Gerry Lauzon/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Who decides the border between offence and criticism? The offence is a peculiarly subjective feeling, the more resentful the more hypertrophic the believer’s ego, her worldly sensibility, her narcissism by identification with the group.

But careful: the prohibition of offence to religions puts freedom of criticism at the mercy of the fundamentalist, legitimating him as a civil judge of censorship, since there is no 'objective' measure that would marginalize his 'feeling' towards ungodliness as excessive or pathological. 

After all, 'moderate' believers (of all monotheistic religions) are not distinguished from fundamentalists as to their resentment against blasphemy and mockery; they differ primarily and almost exclusively as to the scale of the penalty they consider justified: Bergoglio's fist instead of the massacre in rue Nicolas Appert.

But once the offence has been canonized – along with the subjective susceptibility perceiving it – as a criterion for the definition of fault, that same susceptibility becomes the judge in determining the sentence. Because the offense against God or his Prophet, or Virgin Mary, or the Second and especially the Third Person of the Trinity (to sin against the Holy Spirit is, in fact, unforgivable, Mark 3, 28-29) is incomparably more serious than any crime against as undermost a being – compared to God (or Virgin Mary or the Prophet) – as the ordinary Homo sapiens specimen, which we all are. 

This is true, unless one takes seriously the definition of God as Merciful and Compassionate, infinitely good and above all Almighty, therefore unattainable by man because He can't compare with human finitude – such a God certainly cannot even be touched by something so meaningless (compared to His infinite majesty) as any human, all too human, offense. This is a practical atheism of which some mystic or epigone of Roger Williams might be capable, but not actually existing religions, in lust for worldly recognition.

Only atheism is the consistency of secularism generated by disenchantment: a mass atheism at least as practical atheism when the citizen is a citizen, an atheism that only a few believers really know how to reconcile with the faith in their own God of salvation. After all, the atheist is offended in her Enlightened and critical sensibility by every act and word of religious superstition, and accepts the daily offence serenely, as the inevitable price to pay for freedom.

The hermeneutics of allegory

Secular march in Washington. Jennifer Boyer/Flickr. Some rights reserved.All religions, and certainly all monotheistic religions, carry the theocratic temptation and mental bias against the autos nomos inaugurating modernity and the secularism-sovereignty-democracy sequence it generated.

Today, however, Islam is doing so particularly. Almost a thousand years ago its theologians and philosophers were far ahead by 'critical rationality' compared to Europeans, then it stopped. It did not have its Reformation, or the side effect of unexpected heterogenesis of ends by which religion ends up giving up theocracy. 

It does not accept the secular division between civil and religious law; it can possibly tolerate niches of other monotheistic religions in its territories but not freedom of religion, given the central role of the concept of apostasy, punishable by death, for those who abandon the faith of Allah. Its Book is not inspired by God, but was dictated by Him to the Prophet, word by word, and therefore is exempt from the hermeneutics of allegory: death means death, lapidation means lapidation.

The western distinction between fundamentalist Islam and moderate Islam is meaningless when applied to regimes and governments, as the 'moderate' one by definition is the Saudi, where the sharia is implemented with public choreographies of horrifying ferocity. 

Not all Islam is fundamentalist, ça va sans dire; not all Islam is fanatical, God forbid. But so far an Islam willing to recognize religious freedom, including the irrepressible aspect of irreligious mockery (after all, religions by definition treat each other as 'false and deceptive') remains an episode related to isolated individuals, persecuted at home and never hegemonic when they migrate – indeed, increasingly ignored or rejected. To the point that Tariq Ramadam’s sugarcoated theocracy is passed off as a form of 'open' and 'secular' Islamism.

Therefore the task of affirming and giving hegemony to a reformed – and now almost impossible to find – Islam falls on the Prophet's disciples. The first step is to clear the cloud of ambiguity of Islam, which continues to profess a sincere no to terrorism but while reiterating intolerance towards those who insult the faith and the Prophet. The task of the west, which calls itself secular, is to deny any space to such aberrations, while giving every room, voice, or resource to the minority Islam ready for democratic modernity.

Chadors and electronic chips

Dawkins and Dennett at the Global Atheist Convention 2012. Crouchy69/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Modernity arises from the contingent synergy of heresy and science, but science (today, not at the beginning) has proven to be assimilable and metabolizable by faith, and consistent with the lack of secularism. In Khomeini fundamentalism, chadors coexist with electronic chips; in terrorism it exists along with the latest explosives and computer hacking.

Heresy works differently. Heresy, once set free, breaks the round unity of a community of faith, legitimates dissent up until the single dissident, and thus turns into freedom of conscience, opinion, organization – the unstoppable claim of equal sovereignty. 

The pretence of respect for one's religion, with its corollary of public recognition for every community that bears it, denies the individual exactly in his right to heresy, apostasy, and singular existence, chaining him to the membership of faith-and-blood, reducing him to a function of the community. Those who demand respect of the Sacred, at the same time, be they aware of it or not, also impose respect for the community of believers where the nomos of faith and hierarchies are one and the same thing, one that the individual must therefore respect, reproduce, reinforce. Which invariably leads to humiliating women, the body and the spirit.

The west that (in London) legitimates sharia trials to address marital, family, inheritance issues; the west that (in Berlin) allows girls to abstain from biology classes and physical education; the west that (in any metropolis of both the old and the new world) pretends not to know about the hundreds of thousands forced marriages: such a west violates the most basic freedoms that for centuries it has proclaimed inalienable and inviolable even by the most overwhelming majority, but that now it leaves at the mercy of patriarchal minorities. It's a form of racism.

The respect that democracy owes, and which indeed grounds it, concerns the freedom of-each-and-everyone, including criticism perceived as ridicule, not the 'freedom' of communities that can lead to the nullification and the annihilation of the former. The equal citizenship is the only identity that democracy must protect as insuppressible. It must do so through education to secularism, preventing violence, social pressure and psychological manipulation from perpetuating subjection to patriarchal conformism.

Democracy must keep its promise

Ni dieu ni maître. Joseph Sardin/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The consistency of disenchantment celebrates its peak in the saying 'ni Dieu ni maître', as we have seen. Ni maître, then.

For citizenship to be experienced by everyone as their own identity; for the citizen not to feel the need of a vicarious identity, it is necessary that democracy keep its promise: equal sovereignty, and everyone’s equal power. Or at least it should approximate it, asymptotically, as the indispensable soul and compass of its everyday unfolding, of its political life. This equal power will be delegated in its legislative and governmental execution, but the symmetrical sovereignty that 'is represented' in Parliament cannot become a mirage and turn into a farce without this arousing the community drive to surrogate the promised fraternité of betrayed democracy in the One of obedience and exaltation (from football matches to the umma).

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” constitute a hendiatris: the inseparable intertwining of values in which each element is interpreted in connection to the next, and there is no freedom in conflict with equality and there is no equality in conflict with brotherhood, let alone the farewell to all three, without undermining democracy itself. To use Jefferson’s terms in the Declaration of Independence, this is the “right to the pursuit of happiness”, for all

The First Amendment. Critical Mass/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The community/identity deviation – culture both for each revanche of faith, blood and soil, of which terrorism 'in partibus infidelium' is the coarse but logical version – is fought only by realizing democracy, tirelessly increasing freedom, equality, and brotherhood for all: equal power. The opposite of what happens in actual democracies. The latter, after the months of passion of the Maquis and the Resistance, and the wave of 1968 protests, have only known establishments that lobotomize sovereignty, unleash hubris of inequality, and trample brotherhood under the aegis of liberal idolatry in the apotheosis of financial gambling.

Freedom is also material. The 'wall of separation' of secularism is not procedural formalism, but ethos of the autos nomos in its equalitarian essence, as well as its libertarian core. Permanent social emancipation.

The extremism of freedom

Pro-Islamic radical holds sign. SS&SS/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Secularism is the consistency of freedom. The intransigence of freedom. The extremism of freedom.

But freedom by its nature is not unlimited. In fact, the only absolute (ab-solutus) freedom is that of those for whom the others are subjects (or 'loved' creatures), not someone equal. Absolute freedom is by definition only God's, and that of his anointed on earth. Freedom by definition finds its limit in the equal freedom of everyone else.

Racism denies the most basic precondition of equal freedom, it even makes something like 'human dignity' unthinkable, seeing the other – with arbitrarily chosen connotations (as per DNA we are all infinitely mestizos, and the 'purest', that is, original, mankind comes from Africa) – as an instrumentum vocale, as something to enslave. 

Freedom of racism is the guilty activation of a bacillus of dehumanization, the in vitro cultivation of a pestilential virus, its mass dispersion. The racist logos is a virus that resets freedoms. It does not constitute freedom of opinion, but a criminal game of contagion against freedom.

Careful with the terms, though. Anti-Semitism is racism; anti-Judaism and anti-Christianity, if they do not blend with racial presumptions, are more than legitimate criticisms of religions (islamophobia, therefore, isnot racism, just as Cromwell’s roundheads’ papistophobia wasn’t); anti-Zionism is the opposition to a political ideology. 

Fascisms have also been a form of systematic suppression of freedom coherently with doctrine, ideology and values: therefore their nostalgia, apology, propaganda or re-organization cannot be part of the constellation of freedom. It would be masochistic for democracy to create the conditions to make it necessary once more (once too often) to 'sortir de la paille le fusils la mitraille les granades', to risk imprisonment and torture, to sacrifice lives so as to defeat the already defeated Black Plague.

Racism and fascism, these are the only limitations of 'freedom' that freedom demands. For the rest it will suffice to have laws against defamation (of single people, and for specific cases of detailed circumstantial gravity) and the incitement to crime (again with cautious limitation to serious and direct cases). 

Secularism is a matter of life and death for democracy. A matter of survival for both is now a crescendo of equal, political and material, power – one that can no longer be postponed.

Lt. Col. VanHeukelom outside a tent chapel, 2007. MSGT Dale Atkins/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Translated from the Italian by Sarah De Sanctis.

About the author

Paolo Flores d'Arcais is a philosopher and the editor of MicroMega. His recent books include: Democrazia! Libertà privata e libertà in rivolta (ed. Add, Torino 2012), and La democrazia ha bisogno di Dio. Falso! (Laterza, Bari-Roma 2013).

 


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