Beyond church and state

‘Religion’ and ‘secularism’ are not mutually exclusive categories, writes Mike Marqusee. Secularists need to focus more on the shared, public realm that has been eviscerated by neoliberalism

April 26, 2012
7 min read


Mike MarquseeMike 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.

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.

Secularist self-criticism

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.

www.mikemarqusee.com


Mike MarquseeMike 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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace


46