October 7, 2010


Secularity vs secularism: an enlightening distinction: Who invented the secular state? A professor of religious philosophy from the Sorbonne gives a surprising answer. (Jerome di Costanzo and Rémi Brague, 6 October 2010, MercatorNet)

In the wake of Pope Benedict's warning about atheism while visiting the UK, a debate has broken out about secularism. Journalist Jerome di Costanzo interviews the arabist and medievalist, Rémi Brague, who sheds much light on the question.

1) Secularists tend to deny the mediaeval origin of the notion of secularity. From your point of view is it possible to ignore it?

First, a quick glance at the reasons that lead those people to dodge or camouflage this medieval origin could be apposite. Generally speaking, there has been since the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment a widespread negative prejudice against whatever is or is supposed to be, medieval. The received wisdom tells us: Good things arose in Modern Times, full stop. The Middle Ages were a period of darkness, fuller stop.

As for the case of secularity, its advocates specifically want, or pretend to, ignore that it appeared in the Middle Ages, a period that was emphatically not secularist. The dividing line drawn between the Church and the State is a Christian invention that began among the Church Fathers, as a reaction against Constantine’s claim to control the Church and further culminated in medieval times. Moreover, this line was drawn by the Church, not by the State. The Holy See’s constant policy from the Investiture Controversy in the late 11th century consisted in sending the State (i.e. the Emperor or the Kings) back to its own merely this worldly—“secular” if you want—task: enforcing peace, justice, good social order. The State, on the other hand, was not merely “secular”, but claimed its share in sacrality. Just think of the adjective: “Holy Roman Empire”. Secularity was a conquest of the Church.

2) The recent papal visit in Britain has re-awakened the debate about secularity in our society. What exactly is your definition of secularity?

“Secularity” may have many meanings, but it designates in any case a fact, not an ideology or a program of action, unlike “secularism”, which I will deal with presently.

Secularity qualifies a certain realm of things on which unaided human reason can, in principle at least, reach an agreement that enables cooperation towards the common good. Religion can leave alone scientific, technical, political matters, etc. because it could not be of any specific help. Scientists, technicians, politicians, or, for that matter, anglers, plumbers or jellied-eels sellers can become saints if they do their job properly. But Christianity won’t give them many hints on how to ply their trade in their technicalities.

Let me sketch a general rule: for a Christian, subsidiarity as a principle brooks no exception and obtains in the relationship between God and His creatures, too—or even in the first place. The Creator gives each and every creature the means that it needs for it to get its own good by its own exertions. For instance, God does not have to tell men what they should do. Since they were endowed with reason, they possess, at least in principle, the necessary tools for them to choose what is right and avoid what is not. God does not have to tell men what they should eat, how they should dress, where they should spend their holidays, etc. According to Aquinas, the Ten Commandments are nothing more than a reminder of what we should be able to know by ourselves. By this token, “secularity” is a good thing, and it is correct to avoid any interference of “religion” where it is not necessary. On the other hand, it is foolish not to accept its aid where we enter a realm in which religion alone is competent, for instance giving us the power of forgiving, assuaging our fear of death, leading us towards salvation.

As for secularism as an ideology, I have two definitions. One attaches to the way in which people who define themselves as “secular” look at themselves. The word, together with “agnosticism”, “humanism”, etc., was coined in the Victorian era, when declaring oneself an “atheist” was hardly the thing. Secularism has over the latter word the advantage of a positive ring, whereas a-theism expresses a mere negation: not believing in God. Secularism, then, consists in limiting one’s ken to this-worldly matters, to what the Bible calls ha-‘olam haz-zeh.

But I have another definition up my sleeve. It is at the same time etymological and ironical. “Secular” comes from saeculum, the Latin for “century”, which originally meant the longest duration of human life. Secularity is the attitude of people who think that human hopes can’t exceed one century and therefore—perhaps unwittingly and unwillingly—act so that mankind will last exactly as long... Secularists are unable to explain why it is good that there should be human beings on earth. Since they contend that human life is the product of chance, they can’t tell us why it should be good for us, who can decide consciously to carry on with the experience, to do so.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 7, 2010 5:45 AM
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