The Violent History of Secularism

The Violent History of Secularism


By Karen Armstrong

On October 31, 1517, the Augustinian friar Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses onto the castle church door in Wittenberg and set in motion the Reformation. He and the other great reformers were addressing a society undergoing the painful transition to modernity. In any modernizing society, people no longer feel at home in the changing world and they often discover that they can no longer be religious in the old ways. All his life, Luther was prone to agonizing depressions; none of the traditional medieval rites and practices could touch his tristitia, his profound and desolate sorrow. Instead he was released from his despair in a solitary breakthrough when he realised that he was justified before God not by his merits but by his faith in Christ and felt as though he had been born again. Justification by faith was not an original theological idea; it had been widely discussed since the 14th century. What was new was that Luther’s revelation was a personal and intensely private experience. Medieval Catholicism had been primarily communal; as in all traditional faith, one experienced the sacred by living in community, which for Christians was the Body of Christ. In leaving the Roman Church, Luther was also making one of the first declarations of independence that would punctuate Western modernization. Henceforth for Luther, the Christian must stand alone before his God, relying simply on his Bible. Luther was experiencing in a religious guise the individualism that would be essential to Western modernity. This would lead him to a wholly new conception of religion’s role in public life.

Luther was the first European to advocate the separation of church and state. God, he believed, had so retreated from the material world that it no longer had any spiritual significance. True Christians, justified by born again conversion, belonged to the Kingdom of God. Incapable of hatred or injustice, they were essentially free of state coercion. But such Christians were few and far between. Together with non-Christians, they belonged to the corrupt and violent Kingdom of the World, that is, the state, whose prime duty it was to restrain these sinners by force “in the same way as a savage wild beast is bound with chains and ropes so that it cannot bite and tear as it would normally do.” If the state did not have absolute powers, the world would be reduced to chaos. No government could rule according to the gospel precepts of love, compassion and forgiveness. It could only impose peace, order and continuity by the merciless use of the sword.

For its part, the Church, or the Kingdom of God, must hold aloof from the inherently corrupt and depraved policies of the Kingdom of the World and deal only with spiritual affairs. The Roman Church, Luther believed, had failed in its true mission because it had dallied with the sinful Kingdom of the World. Where previous prophets, sages and reformers in all the great faith traditions had felt impelled by their spiritual insights to undertake a principled critique of state violence and injustice, Luther believed that because religion was a wholly private affair, his reformed Christian should retreat into his inner world of righteousness and let the world, quite literally, go to hell.

Luther’s response to the Peasants War in Germany in 1525 showed that a secularised political theory would not necessarily be a force for peace. The peasants were resisting the centralizing policies of the rulers of the German principalities, who were trying to create strong sovereign states on the model of France and England and in the process were depriving the peasantry of traditional rights. Luther, of course, fully supported those princes who were seeking to create absolute states and believed that the peasants had committed the unpardonable sin of mixing religion and politics. Suffering, he insisted, was their lot and they must turn the other cheek and accept the loss of their lives and property. “A worldly kingdom,” he insisted, “cannot exist without an inequality of persons, some being free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.” So, Luther commanded the princes, “Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisoned, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.” Killing these peasants was an act of mercy, because it would liberate them from this satanic bondage.

Luther’s vision of the strong, absolute state expressed in a religious form what was happening in Europe politically. The German princes and the kings of Europe were resisting the ambitions of Charles V to achieve trans-European hegemony on the Ottoman model. These struggles, which culminated in the horror of the Thirty Years War (1618~48), would be known as the Wars of Religion, because, it was said, Protestants and Catholics were so inflamed by the theological quarrels of the Reformation that they had butchered one another in these senseless battles. But while there is no doubt that the participants certainly experienced these wars as a life-and-death sectarian struggle, this was also a conflict between one set of state-builders over another. By the end of the Thirty Years War, Europeans had fought off the danger of imperial rule. Henceforth Europe would be divided into smaller states, each claiming sovereign power in its own territory, each supported by a professional army and governed by a prince who aspired to absolute rule ~ a recipe perhaps for chronic interstate warfare. New configurations of political power were beginning to force the church into a subordinate role, a process that involved a fundamental reallocation of authority and resources from the ecclesiastical establishment to the monarch. All these developments required a new understanding of religion.

Luther had been deeply in tune with his troubled times. The sovereign, independent state achieved at the end of the Thirty Years War mirrored his vision of the independent, sovereign individual; his view of religion as an essentially subjective and private quest over which the state had no jurisdiction would be the foundation of the modern secular ideal. But Luther’s solutions also suggested that the wholly secularised state would be no panacea. Not only would secular wars be as pitiless as any religiously-inspired crusade or jihad but in privatizing religion some of the more valuable insights of traditional faith could be lost, in particular the social concern for justice and equity, which had always been essential to spiritual enlightenment, as well as an insistence that this concern could not be confined to one’s own congenial group, but must also embrace the foreigner, other species, and even the enemy.

The trauma of the Wars of Religion inspired what has been called the “myth of religious violence.” People concluded that the fanatical bigotry that was always inherent in religion could be contained only by the creation of the liberal state that separates religion and politics. Europe had learned the hard way that once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds. The rabidly intolerant passions that religious faith always seems to unleash must never again be allowed to intrude on political life. Even though military historians and experts on terrorism repeatedly insist that a number of interrelated political, social and economic factors are always involved in both warfare and lawless atrocity, there is now a widespread conviction that religion is the main or even the sole culprit. For Richard Dawkins, “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people.” But this view is not confined to the “new atheists”; I am frequently informed by all manner of folk that “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history,” as though this odd remark ~ the two world wars, for example, were clearly not fought for religion ~ were a statement of incontrovertible truth.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion. In the modern West, we regard religion as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, rituals and institutions that focuses on a supernatural deity and is an essentially private pursuit, hermetically sealed off from all “secular” activities ~ much as Luther described. But this view of religion is unique. No other culture has had anything remotely like it and before the 18th century it would also have been incomprehensible to most Europeans. Words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic din signifies an entire way of life and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious.’”

Before the modern period, therefore, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. It would have been impossible to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. If the Wars of Religion had been solely motivated by sectarian bigotry, we should not expect to have found Protestants and Catholics fighting on the same side, yet in fact they often did so. Thus Catholic France repeatedly fought the Catholic Habsburgs, who were regularly supported by some of the Protestant princes. In the French Wars of Religion (1562~98) and the Thirty Years War too, combatants crossed confessional lines so often that it was impossible to talk about solidly “Catholic” or “Protestant” populations. These wars were neither “all about religion” nor “all about politics”. Nor was it a question of the state simply “using” religion for political ends. Until the 18th century, dissociating the two would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.

Secularism has certainly been beneficial in the West; it has freed us from an ecclesiastical hierarchy which could have impeded the scientific, ideological and technological innovations that were essential to our modernization. But it was itself a wholly new experiment. Traditional spirituality did not retreat, Luther-like, from engagement with the world but urged people to work practically and politically to improve the human lot. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’ famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for secularism. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. The bedrock message of the Quran is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

There is no doubt that throughout history violence has often been articulated in religious terms and that this has tarnished the more noble values of traditional faiths. But the separation of religion and politics during the early modern period was not the discovery of an iron law that automatically invalidated previous civilizations ~ which, of course, had not separated religion and politics ~ as aberrant. It took root in Europe in part because it mirrored new configurations of power that were pushing the churches out of government. Secularization, however, emerged at a time when Europe was beginning to colonize the “New World” and it would be one of the factors that would influence the way the west viewed the indigenous peoples.

The philosophers who devised the secular ideal came to believe that, in the words of John Locke (d.1704): “The church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immoveable. As an essentially a “private search”, it could not be policed by government. The separation of religion and politics ~ “which are in their original end, business, and in everything perfectly and infinitely different from each other” ~ was thus written into the very nature of things. But the liberal state was in fact, a radical innovation, just as revolutionary as the market economy that was gradually developing in the West and would shortly transform the world. Because of the violent passions it aroused, Locke insisted that the segregation of “religion” from government was “above all things necessary” for the creation of a peaceful society.

Hence Locke, the apostle of toleration, was adamant that the liberal state could tolerate neither Catholics nor Muslims, condemning their confusion of politics and religion as dangerously perverse. Locke was a major advocate of the theory of natural human rights, originally pioneered by the Renaissance humanists. The first draft of the American Constitution would define these rights as life, liberty and property. But for the humanists there had been no question of extending these rights to the indigenous inhabitants of the New World. Indeed, these peoples could be penalised for failing to conform to European norms. Alberico Gentili (d.1608), professor of civil law at Oxford, had argued that land that had not been exploited agriculturally, as it was in Europe, was “empty” and that “the seizure of [such] vacant places” should be “regarded as law of nature.” Locke too agreed that the “kings” of America had no legal right of ownership to their territory. He also endorsed a master’s “Absolute, Arbitrary, Despotical Power” over a slave that included “the power to kill him at any time.” Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who had crafted the “wall of separation” between church andstate in America, and had proudly declared that “all men are created equal” had no qualms about owning African slaves.

Traditional sages, poets and mystics, however, had often created mythologies that forced people to face up to the damage that they were doing to others. They may not have been able to stop these abuses, but they kept the people aware of their rulers’ failings and inconsistencies. Secularism would have its own glaring inconsistency. It was supposedly designed to create a peaceful world order, but, so intricately was the Church involved in the entire economic, political and social structures of society, it could only be established violently. In North America, where there was no entrenched aristocratic government, the disestablishment of the various churches could be accomplished with relative ease. But in France, the Church could be dismantled only by an outright assault; far from being experienced as a natural and essentially normative arrangement, its creation could be experienced as traumatic and terrifying. During the French Revolution, one of the first acts of the new National Assembly on November 2, 1789, was to confiscate all Church property to pay off the national debt, so that secularization began with dispossession, humiliation and marginalisation. This segued into outright violence during the September Massacres of 1792, when the mob fell upon the goals of Paris and slaughtered between two and three thousand prisoners, many of them priests. The following year, an uprising broke out in the Vendee in western France, led by farmers, artisans and shopkeepers in protest against military conscription, unfair taxation, and above all the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris with instructions to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General Francois-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors: “The Vendee no longer exists. “I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women...The roads are littered with corpses.” It was becoming clear that banishing faith to the private sphere would not necessarily eliminate the violence from political life.

No sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion, however, than in 1793 they invented another. Their new gods were Liberty, Nature and the French Nation which they worshipped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. That same year the Goddess of Reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame Cathedral and the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed. In 1807, while Napoleon’s armies invaded Prussia, the German philosopher Gottfried Fichte urged his fellow countrymen to be prepared to lay down their lives for the Fatherland, which was a manifestation of the divine and the repository of the spiritual essence of the Volk, which alone could give humans the immortality they craved. If we define the sacred as that for which we are prepared to die, what Benedict Anderson called the “imaginary community” of the nation has indeed replaced God. It is now considered admirable to die for your country, but not for your religion.

The nation-state came into its own in the early 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. Hitherto all civilizations without exception had depended economically on a surplus of agricultural produce wrested from the peasantry by an elite group, who comprised no more than 5 percent of the population. But once industrial manufacture became the economic basis of society, the nation had to be bound tightly together to mobilize its disparate peoples for industry. Modern communications enabled the government to create a national ethos that could be conveyed to the people and intrude into the lives of their people more than had been possible before. Even if they spoke a different language from their rulers, subjects now belonged to the “nation,” whether they liked it or not. John Stuart Mill regarded this forcible integration as progress; it was surely better for a Breton, “the half-savage remnant of past times,” to become a French citizen than “sulk on his own rocks.” But Lord Acton feared that the adulation of the national spirit, which would emphasize ethnicity, culture and language, would penalise those who did not fit the national norm: “According, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilization in that dominant body which claims all the rights of the community, the inferior races are exterminated or reduced to servitude, or put in a condition of dependence.” Tragically, events would prove that Acton’s misgivings were all too well founded.

The Enlightenment philosophes had tried to counter the intolerance and bigotry that they associated with “religion” by promoting the equality of all human beings, together with democracy, human rights, and intellectual and political liberty, modern secular versions of ideals which had been promoted in a religious idiom in the past by poets, sages and prophets. The structural injustice of the agrarian state, however, had made it impossible to implement these ideals fully. The nation-state made these noble aspirations practical necessities. More and more people had to be drawn into the productive process and needed at least a modicum of education. Eventually they would inevitably demand the right to participate in the decisions of government. It was found by trial and error that those nations that democratized forged ahead economically, while those that confined the benefits of modernity to an elite fell behind. Innovation was essential to progress, so people had to be allowed to think freely, unconstrained by the constraints of their class, guild or church. Governments needed to exploit all their human resources, so outsiders, such as Jews in Europe and Catholics in England and America, were brought into the mainstream.

Yet this toleration was only skin-deep, and as Lord Acton had predicted, an intolerance of ethnic and cultural minorities would become the Achilles Heel of the nation-state. Indeed, nationalism’s concentration on the prosperity and destiny of the nation made it difficult for people to acquire a more global perspective. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment in the United States, instructed his secretary of war that Native Americans were “backward peoples” who must either be “exterminated” or driven “beyond our reach” to the other side of the Mississippi “with the beasts of the forest.” The following year, Napoleon issued the “Infamous Decrees” ordering the Jews of France to take French names, privatize their faith, and ensure that at least one in three marriages per family was with a gentile. Increasingly, as national feeling became a supreme value, Jews would appear chronically rootless and cosmopolitan. In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of anti-Semitism in Europe, which undoubtedly drew upon centuries of Christian prejudice, but gave it a scientific rationale, claiming that Jews did not fit the biological and genetic profile of the Volk, and should be eliminated from the body politick as modern medicine cut out a cancer.

Industrialisation had led to the development of modern weaponry. At first, Europeans had been reluctant to use the new machine guns against their fellow Europeans, but by 1851, Minie ball-firing rifles issued to British troops overseas and used to great effect the following year against Bantu tribesmen. “Civilized man is much more susceptible to injury than savages,” Sir John Ardagh explained at a conference in The Hague that debated the legality of these weapons in 1899; “The savage, like the Tiger, is not so impressionable, and will go on fighting even when desperately wounded.” Human rights could not be extended to non-Western peoples, because they seemed scarcely human.

Modern weaponry had made it relatively easy for the Western colonialists to subdue the peoples of Asia and Africa in their global empires. As the European imperialists prepared to leave their colonies, they established nation-states on the Western model in which secularization was imposed as violently as it had been in France. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular republic of Turkey in 1918, is often admired as an enlightened Muslim leader in the West, but for many in the Middle East he personified the cruelty of secular nationalism. He hated Islam, describing it as a “putrefied corpse and suppressed it in Turkey by outlawing the Sufi orders and seizing their properties, closing down the madrasas and appropriating their income. He also abolished the beloved institution of the caliphate, which had long been a dead-letter politically but which symbolised the link with the Prophet. Secularisation was not experienced as liberating but as a force for violence, disempowerment and oppression.

Ataturk continued the policy of ethnic cleansing that had been initiated by the last Ottoman sultans; in an attempt to control the rising commercial classes, they systematically deported the Armenian and Greek-speaking Christians, who comprised 90 percent of the bourgeoisie. The Young Turks, who seized power in 1909, espoused the anti-religious positivism associated with August Comte and were also determined to create a purely Turkic state. During the First World War, approximately one million Armenians were slaughtered in the first genocide of the twentieth century, men and youths were killed where they stood, while women, children and the elderly were driven into the desert where they were raped, shot, starved, poisoned, suffocated or burned to death. Clearly inspired by the new scientific racism, Mehmet Resid, known as the “Execution Governor” regarded the Armenians as “dangerous microbes” in “the bosom of the Fatherland.” Ataturk completed this racial purge. For centuries Muslims and Christians had lived together on both sides of the Aegean; Ataturk partitioned the region, deporting Greek Christians living in what is now Turkey to Greece, while Turkish-speaking Muslims in Greece were sent the other way.

Secularising rulers like Ataturk often wanted their countries to look modern, that is, European. In Europe and the United States, modernity had evolved organically; in the Middle East it was experienced as an alien and foreign import. In Iran in 1928, Shah Reza Pahlavi issued the Laws of Uniformity of Dress and with their bayonets, his soldiers tore off women’s veils and ripped them to pieces in the street. In 1935 the police were ordered to open fire on a crowd who had staged a peaceful demonstration against the dress laws in one of the holiest shrines of Iran and killed hundreds of unarmed Iranians. Policies like this made veiling, which has no Quranic endorsement, an emblem of Islamic authenticity in many parts of the Muslim world.

Following the example of the French, Egyptian rulers secularized by disempowering and impoverishing the clergy. Modernization had begun in the Ottoman period under the governor Muhammad Ali (1805~49), who starved the ulema financially, taking away their tax exemption status, confiscating the religiously-endowed properties that were their principal source of income, and systematically robbing them of any shred of power. When the reforming army officer Jamal Abdul Nasser came to power in 1952, he changed tack and turned the clergy into state officials. For centuries, the ulema had acted as a protective bulwark between the people and the systemic violence of the state. Now Egyptians came to despise them as government lackeys. This policy would ultimately backfire, because it deprived the general population of learned guidance that was aware of the complexity of the Islamic tradition. Self-appointed freelances, whose knowledge of Islam was limited, would step into the breach, often to disastrous effect.

In 1954, after surviving an attempted assassination, Nasser incarcerated thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom had done nothing more incriminating than distributing leaflets. One of the detained Brothers was Sayed Qutb, an educated man who was well-informed about Islam. But in Nasser’s prison he himself was tortured and saw other Brothers slaughtered casually by prison guards, beaten and executed. When he heard Nasser vowing to privatize Islam on the Western model, he was convinced that secularism was cruel, aggressive and immoral. Amidst the horror of his Egyptian gaol, he wrote Milestones, the work of a man who has been pushed too far, which would become a classic text for Sunni fundamentalists.

What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularization that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. The case of Qutb is just one of many tragic examples of an aggressive secularism actually damaging religion and pushing it into a violent riposte. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy themselves and their faith. From Ataturk to the Shahs to Nasser we can see how this perception has developed in the Middle East.

Some secular thinkers regard “religion” not only as inherently belligerent and intolerant but irrational and backward, the unnatural and violent “other” to the peaceable, rational, and humane liberal state. This attitude had informed the colonialists’ view of the indigenous peoples as “primitive” because their political institutions were mired in their benighted religious beliefs and they had failed to develop an industrialised economy. Even today the apparent reluctance of some Muslims to embrace the secular ideals that had often been imposed so cruelly is often regarded as a failure to evolve naturally and “grow up” in the way that “we” did.

Today the “new atheists” represent an extreme expression of this tendency. In the past, Sam Harris felt it necessary to italicize his claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith.” In a recent article on ISIL, he has argued that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut” and that those Muslims who condemn the atrocities of Islamic State, are not and, indeed, cannot be inspired by the teachings of Islam but have simply absorbed the secularist ideals of toleration and human rights. Secularism was an extremely valuable development for us in our pioneering modernization but it should not be regarded as one of the laws of nature. To stigmatize those to whom it does not come naturally as fanatical, unhinged and barbaric has helped to damage our relations with other peoples in the past and even today can manifest the very bigotry that secularism was supposed to supplant.

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