What is secularism?
This is a first run through of a couple of ideas which I hope will be published in the magazine of the Secular Society at Oxford University. If there are mistakes or people want to help me by suggesting possible criticisms, I welcome it and will probably produce a final draft later.
What is secularism? Can it be reduced to the desire to separate church and state? That is a very specific proposition with which all secularists would agree. What if I change the simplification to the desire to separate religion and politics? A dis-established church, a church with no power to structurally influence the state, is very different idea to religion being denied argumentative validity in the political arena.
Certainly I would support the latter proposition, but secularism encompasses many more people than I. Conservatives, Libertarians, Centrists, Social Democrats, Communists; secularism is represented across the political spectrum. Groups which have almost nothing in common, from the most vacuous pluralists, most ruthless capitalists to the most dogmatic socialists, often agree on something called secularism. But what is it?
Many people cite 12th century Islamic scholar Ibn-Rushd as the father of secularism, with his re-interpretation of Aristotle. Ibn-Rushd sought to outline secular philosophy and religious faith as two routes to the same truth. Ibn-Rushd’s concession, coming at a time when Muslims and Christians were slaughtering each other over religion, was a startling departure from the accepted wisdom of the time. Yet this was not modern secularism.
That concept was not coined until George Holyoake. In 1846, Holyoake said, “Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.” Manifestly, secularism was the belief in a world that was knowable to man and should be judged as such, indefatigably modernist.
Yet the knowledge such as Holyoake referred to does not simply spring out of nothing. Knowledge is shaped by a pre-existent base of material conditions, the changes in which create new demands and generate new ideas to satiate those demands. Holyoake’s ‘secularism’ was the result of several centuries of relentless rationalisations in how human society organised itself to meet each new demand as it was thrown up.
In short, Holyoake’s secularism was the result of the capitalist dis-embedding of economics from the filter of social relations. This conflation of capitalism and secularism will seem odd to some. After all, the birth of capitalism in England was accompanied by a civil war in which landed privilege and merchant capitalism fought each other cloaked in the languages of a flamboyant Anglicanism and an extreme Puritanism.
Puritanism, however, was the dialectical answer to the Anglicanism that was wielded like a weapon against the gentry of England by the King. It struck directly at one of the sources of royal power over the English church – the episcopacy. It preferred individual exegesis of biblical scripture to the received pronunciations of a cleric. This individualism is a key component of capitalism, the full development of which requires that each individual be a free actor in the market place. Wage-labour, rather than serfdom or slavery, was to be the way of the new capitalist order.
More recognisably, secularism was connected directly to the hearts of the American and French revolutions. These revolutions swept away the vestigial power of the aristocracy and placed the bourgeoisie, the owners and managers of capital, at the centre of the political system, each atop a heap of peasant and proletarian corpses. However this secularism was not merely a response to a feudal reliance and exploitation of the forms of religion.
Secularism was much more important than that. It embodied the rationalism required to develop the capitalist mode of production, with its inescapable logic of competition, profit and innovation. This was a rationalism existent in society which the embedded economies of previous modes of production found little use for. Concepts such as honour or manliness were more esteemed and were themselves currency for the ruling class as much as or more than mere coinage.
Capitalism changed all that, abolishing the embedded economies. On the coat tails of capitalism came secularism, a natural corollary of the destruction of religion’s structural position in feudal society, in all its variants. Secularism was a sharp challenge to the epistemological validity of religion in the same way that the capitalist revolutions were a sharp challenge to the relevance of left over feudal relics such as absolute monarchy.
If we are to understand secularism fully, we should not attempt to reduce it to a unidimensional profession of faith in rationality. We should understand it in the context of the material conditions which gave it birth, or at least which popularised it. For me, secularism is one more part of a wider emancipatory project which flows from the rational, dis-embedded economics that began with capitalism but which will conclude with the communal ownership of the means of production.
At its very root, secularism forms an explicit affirmation of the human ability to penetrate mysticism, of the human ability to know. In the modern era, secularism is much more than a renunciation of religious connection to the state. It defies postmodernist relativism and the modernist establishment and represents a beacon of hope for all progressive movements.