When a high court judge ruled against Bideford Town Council’s inclusion of prayers in its formal agenda, Tory communities secretary Eric Pickles acted quickly, fast-tracking a parliamentary order ‘effectively reversing’ the court’s decision. By doing so, he crowed, ‘we are striking a blow for localism over central interference, for freedom to worship over intolerant secularism, for parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism, and for long-standing British liberties over modern-day political correctness.’
Pickles’ binary system is a crass muddle, but his political, Tea Party-style agenda is clear. Privatisation, cuts, the nullification of local democracy are to be camouflaged by an appeal to a cultural ‘majority‘ allegedly threatened by an amalgam of Big Government and liberal political correctness.
Really, the issue of prayers at council meetings ought to be straightforward. State-sponsored prayer, however ecumenical, is a powerful public endorsement of a specific religious belief – not only about the existence of a supreme being but also about the nature of our relationship to it (supplicant). As a result, it excludes all of those who do not subscribe to that specific belief, or imposes a silent hypocrisy as a condition of inclusion. It creates a second-class citizenship.
In his Rights of Man, Thomas Paine derided the coupling of church and state as producing ‘a sort of mule-animal, capable only of destroying, and not of breeding up’. As Paine noted, the state-church tie-up is not just an intrusion of religion into affairs of state but also an intrusion of the state into affairs of the spirit. Prayer at council meetings is an invasion of privacy, a colonisation by the state of our inner life. As such, it might seem to go against the grain of Pickles’ vision of a privatised, minimal local state – but in fact, as so often, neoliberal economics and cultural reaction work in tandem.
If secularists are to respond to this strategy, they must engage in some serious self-criticism (which in any case is where the secular spirit ought always to begin). ‘Religion’ and ‘secularism’ are not mutually exclusive categories but are too often treated as such by people on both sides of this much‑hyped, ill-defined divide. Similarly, the misleading association of secularism with the ‘west’ (with imperialism or capitalism) is shared by both fundamentalists and prominent liberal secularists.
At a formal level, secularism demands the ‘separation of church and state‘, the protection of minorities, the elimination of religious discrimination or favouritism, and so on. But in addition to this negative, restraining function, secularism posits a shared realm, a distinctively public realm, in which arguments are addressed to common interests and principles, though of course they may also be informed by religious motives.
The deeper crisis facing secularism is that under neoliberalism this shared realm has been eviscerated. Capitalism tends to dissociate the economic from the political, making daily life and labour subject to an abstract economic law; that tendency has become extreme under neoliberalism. On all sides, the truly public domain has been whittled away. Politics, and along with it much of our social existence, is reduced to a question of management. The secular, shared realm is confined to a narrow space, leaving little room for questions about aims and alternatives, and offering few spaces for solidarity and collectivity, which of course opens a gap for ‘religion’.
The power of the politics of religious identity is a feature of the globalised neoliberal order, not merely atavism. The desire to belong, however horrific its manifestations can be, is not in itself reactionary; it’s a rational response to a precarious world and drives democratic mass movements as much as authoritarian sects. In this sense, the answer to the politics of religious identity is not to catalogue the ‘absurdities’ of religion but to create a secular order worth belonging to.
The arguments over religion and secularism are interlaced with the many confusions surrounding ‘multiculturalism’. It’s not unusual to find ‘Christian’ and ‘secular’ antagonists united in rejecting what they see as the moral relativism of multiculturalism, or in hostility towards Islam. It suits both ‘sides’ to conceive of secularism as somehow ‘without culture’, which is a bit like saying someone speaks without an accent. This highly selective vision of the west as a bastion of the ‘secular’ and therefore the ‘universal’ has been evoked in support of the west’s wars in the Middle East and discrimination against Muslims in Europe.
The last thing an honest, effective secularism should do is blindly defend modern (western) culture or its particular property-based notions of freedom. In some ways this culture, deeply linked as it is to global capital, is even more intrusive and pervasive than the old ‘religious’ cultures, especially when it claims to be nothing more than life itself, the human condition: competition and imitation, consumption and production. A secularism that takes that culture for granted will be unable to fulfil its promise: to create an effectively shared human realm.
Wary of generalising
The sheer variety of religious experience and expression should make people wary about generalising. Undeniably, religion has a long, brutal history as a mask for privilege and exploitation. But it also has a history as a vehicle for freedom and equality – because it posits a power and legitimacy greater than the state or wealth or weapons. Inscribed in the history of many religions is their own emergence out of a conflict with power, in defiance of an oppressive orthodoxy: Guru Nanak, Buddha, Muhammed, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus. In just about all religious traditions, repressive, hierarchical strands are found alongside emancipatory, egalitarian strands, often tangled together. Sects may originate in one impulse only to turn into embodiments of the other. How else could it be? In the end religion unfolds in the material world, under the pressures of economics and politics, and is always shaped by that.
But contradictions abound also on the secular side. The Enlightenment is often dragged into the discussion with little regard for its actual historical content, its internal divisions and limitations. What Adorno called the ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’ produced not only social and scientific advances but also weapons of mass destruction, ‘racial science’, genocide, environmental degradation and the creation of a new ‘secular’ cult object, the nation-state, responsible for as much intolerance and bloodshed as any of the great religions.
After all, is the belief in god a more serious or dangerous ‘absurdity’ than the widely held secular beliefs that imperial power is beneficent, that ‘growth’ can be unlimited in a finite environment, that the deficit is caused by too much public spending? Is religious faith a greater obtuseness than the blithe acceptance of the laws of capital as ‘natural’? Is it worse, or even more irrational, to derive comfort from thoughts of an afterlife than to derive it from compulsively hoarding or displaying inordinate wealth? The former is a social problem if it prevents people from taking action in this life. But the latter is socially irredeemable.
There’s a world of difference between the atheism of a Bakunin – ‘as long as we have a master in heaven we will be slaves on earth’ – and the New Atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens et al. One seeks to empower people, the other to set limits on them. Thou shalt not doubt the wisdom, coherence and finality of the existing secular (western) order. What virtue is there in an atheism that is entirely conventional, merely assumed as part of the ‘common sense’ of the age? This is received opinion, as little an expression of independent thought as the religious doctrines of the past. It is a highly un-dialectical materialism.
Within a secularism liberated from the restraints of global capital, we need an atheism responsive to the gaps and incoherences in human experience, to feelings of awe and reverence rooted in the here and now. We need an atheism that enhances the search for meaning – not an atomistic, abstractly ‘universal’ consciousness, but a consciousness as fluid as reality, finding the universal in its true home, the particular.
Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.