Sacred Politics

Review: 'Secularism' by Andrew Copson

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• July 28, 2018 5:00 am


Cuius regio, eius religio. "Whose realm, his religion."

With this 1555 declaration, and on behalf of his brother Charles V—by the grace of God, Holy Roman Emperor, forever August, King of Germany, King of Italy, King of all Spains, etc.—Ferdinand, King of the Romans, delayed a conflict that threatened to tear the continent apart. The Treaty of Augsburg offered the martialing princes of the Holy Roman Empire a settlement: Within their domains they would dictate religious life. Whether Catholic or Augustana confessing Lutheran, rulers and subjects would be united by faith and sword. But they would tolerate their neighbors. Later, in 1648, as the Peace of Westphalia brought over a century of European religious wars to a kind of close, this arrangement grew and spread and lay the foundations of modern religious pluralism.

Secular, all of it. Don't let the religious trappings, the question, settlement, titles, fool you. The ancient Etruscans spoke of the saeculum, the time given to a man, or to a generation. And the apostle Paul by way of Jerome preached in saecula saeculorum, of everlasting life unto the ages of ages. The time between those—between amniotic sac and eternity—is the secular. It is a descriptor of temporal orientation, not composition. Whatever is confined in purpose and power to this passing age participates in secularity. The Catholic Church's secular clergy are called so because when they aren't performing sacraments they are in the dirt of everyday life with the rest of us, not projecting themselves into the age to come full-time in a monastery. The church is not un-secular because it is sacred. Nor are nations secular because they are profane. Rather, the church, Augustine's City of God, is eternal and sacred because it is set apart for the eschaton, the last days, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. But in the meantime its institutions and forms are often secular, for they are in time and for time.

What then is secularism? How do you -ism what belongs to the saeculum? Here with a brief answer is Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK and ardent secularist. Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom from Oxford University Press is a slick and quick introduction to a tricky concept. It's the right time for one. In a world of Muslim migrants in Europe, gay wedding cakes and Catholic jurists whose "dogma lives loudly within" them in the United States, and a Turkish president who thanks God for coup attempts, secularism is on people's minds. Copson defines secularism with French sociologist Jean Baubérot's description of its ideal implementation. It has three parts:

separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state and no domination of the political sphere by religious institutions; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to change their beliefs and manifest their beliefs within the limits of public order and the rights of others; no state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or non-religious world view, with everyone receiving equal treatment on these grounds.

Secularism, then, is an ideology that argues the things of this life and of the next cannot only be distinguished but also divided—what is more, that they ought to be.

That is an idea we've arrived at through the passing away of Christendom. While secularism has manifested in other contexts—whether in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's imposition of laiklik in Turkey after abolishing the caliphate or in post-colonial India's law code—its pioneers were the fathers of the United States and France's post-revolutionary commitment to laïcité, and it is a Western inheritance, in that grand old great conversation sort of way. Copson succeeds in his explicit object with this book, providing a basic but helpful summary of the history, articulations, and current dynamics of secularism. This is a layman's guide to the primacy of laymen. But he slips in an argument, too: "Secularism as a dynamic and ongoing process of negotiation between equals seems to be the best way of organizing our common life in a way that is fair to all in the context of diversity." And there's the rub.

Secularism is modern liberalism's decisive answer to the theologico-political problem.  It chooses Athens over Jerusalem. Like most significant political concepts secularism is a co-option—even, strangely, a secularization—of a theological claim. The this-worldness of secularity is in contrast to the other-worldness of the sacred. But secularism advocates for a this-worldness on its own this-world terms, the terms of individual rights and material security that liberal politics presents as the lowest common denominator approximate of a common good. Reading Copson is a reminder that the post-1791 world is one of liberalism and secularism so bound up in each other that it is hard to see which begat which or whether they should actually be differentiated. Freedom for religion or freedom from religion: Philadelphia or Paris, which way Western man? Two centuries later, in practice the differences can feel insignificant.

For secularism sets up the state as arbiter of religious life. As Copson admits, there are always limits, and in a society built on secularism "the right to act in accordance with your religion or belief may be subject to some limitations if they are ‘prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.'" Copson is an eminently careful and fair-minded writer, and he does his best—very well indeed—to anticipate and represent objections to the project:

Secularism pretends to be neutral, they say, but in separating religion from politics it is not neutral. It implicitly favours non-religious ways of reasoning, living, and thinking over religious ones. Even worse, because of its Western origins, the non-religious ways it privileges are those of a secularized Christianity—doubly incompatible with non-Christian religions.

Copson's answer—although he frames it dispassionately and with distance—is to say secularism is the best mechanism we've got, another one of liberalism's lowest common denominator fixes: "Secularists rather argue that it is a value-laden political commitment that may be shared by people of different religions, not that it is in reality shared by everyone." For, "Even in a world of diversity, we need a framework for our common life and most of us want that framework to be a fair one." Fair. There's another tricky word. Commutative justice is based on equality in exchange. Distributive justice is giving each man his due. Legal justice is conforming to the laws. But who decides what's fair?

In some sense, the fear among secularism's skeptics of all kind is that cuius regio, eius religio is actually tautological: that especially in liberal democracies where the people rule, our realm is our religion, our secular politics more sacred than anything else. The United Kingdom, arguably the cradle of liberalism, still has an established church (and even a Christian monarch), and so never officially adopted secularism as Copson and others would define it—technically it still acknowledges that the state is part of a public history larger than itself, that we're all heading somewhere and someone is watching. But secularism is winning there: More than half of the U.K. population identify as "nones." Their value-laden political commitments are religion enough for them. But that's not enough for everyone.

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