Bloody Religion Versus Bloody Secularism

Invariably when discussing religion and politics, separationists invoke the specter of “religious war” as their argumentative coup de grâce. They’re usually already turning away looking for worthier interlocutors when I respond I’ll accept their measure: blood will be the standard by which we judge the case for separation.

It is a testament to the devastating scar left on European consciousness by the Thirty Years War that, even today, the experience is taken almost singularly to prove the case for separation. While the experience may have warranted a belief in separation in the centuries immediately after the War—and we can argue about that – almost four centuries have intervened since the War. Perhaps the intervening centuries provide us additional evidence. Indeed, while the 19th century experience seems pertinent, it is militantly secular, anti-religious ideologies of the 20th Century—communism and fascism most notably—that gave rise to a bloody century if there ever was one.

At this point separationists typically respond with a precious rejoinder, something like, “Well, those are not the type of secular governments I mean.” It is a point I’m happy to concede, as long as I’m allowed the same prerogative. Namely, to distance myself from ostensibly religious regimes that do not, in fact, reflect true religious principles. After all, if the separationist need not treat secularism as a generic, then surely the religionist need not be saddled with answering generically for any regime that pastes a religious label on itself. (Does anyone think democrats really need to account for the behavior of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?)

So what counts? The answer is: it depends. And at that point an actual conversation can begin. The core of the separationist case is based on ignoring recent evidence. Evidence in which “religion” is treated as a generic, the mirror image of which the separationist would never accept to characterize the experience of secularism. The question for each is what type of religious regime and what type of secular regime should be blamed for the body count?

That said, the separationist doesn’t get off the hook simply by conceding symmetrical respect to his or her interlocutor. We can press on the dynamic working out of the internal logic of both religious and secular thought, variegated though they be. We can ask: on balance, how would the internal logic of different religions as opposed to various forms of secular thought work out in practice? Which ones more often end in violence?

For example, one can point to the Thirty Years War and observe without fear of contradiction that it reflected a massive failure of Christian charity. The behavior of the warring princes failed to reflect the internal principles of the religion which the princes ostensibly confessed. While I think arguments like those Karen Armstrong makes in Fields of Blood are perhaps a little more forgiving of religion than the evidence merits, nonetheless her overall argument is to the point: conflicts usually ascribed as “religious” more often than not reflect the working out of worldly commitments, commitments that are little more than papered over with religious language. They rarely reflect the working out of internally-coherent religious principles. (Again, though, treating “religion” as a generic is itself a secularist conceit.)

On the other hand, what our separationist interlocutor really wants to get to and defend is liberalism (in its broad sense). That way communism and fascism can be shucked aside as secular inconveniences.

Nonetheless, our liberal separationist typically assumes the practices and habits of our current historical location is a stable point for liberalism. Neglected is that liberalism, at least in the West, evolved out of a dense Christian tradition, and even the non-religious in these societies reflect the residual practices and habits that tradition.

The separationist argument often boils down to the claim, more implicit than explicit, that any commitment to True Principles, in principle, invites violent affirmation. The rejection of all principles, whether secular or religious, is the great pacific step forward. In that sense, the separationist believes the violence of communism and fascism can be grouped together with religious belief, as against liberal secularism.

I’m not averse to agreeing with the claim for the recent past: The secularist adherent with a character formed by Christendom often indeed, reflected a pacific secular character. But this assumes the internal logic of secular liberalism worked its way out in the habits and practices of the recent past. Yet the principled rejection of principles—antifoundationalism—is pacific only in today’s rarefied historical circumstances. Liberal pragmatist Richard Rorty, for example, admitted he has no answer to the question, “why not be cruel?”

If the separationist core of liberalism necessarily entails silence in the face of cruelty—or, more accurately in Rorty’s case, the assertion of gentle irony in response to cruelty—then what internal resources does liberal regime rely on when it finally shucks off the remnants of a detested Christian past? The antifoundationalist answer is – none. Consistent liberalism, at least of the Rortyian variety (and I suggest Rorty reflects a consistent liberal epistemology) provides no coherent basis to turn away from the abyss once religiously-inspired habits and preferences disappear.

To be sure, I don’t at all mind practical, prudentially-motivated compromises that reduce the likelihood that adherents of different religious beliefs erupt into violent, open conflict—whether despite those beliefs or because of those beliefs. But prudential accommodation is not a principle, let alone the pragmatic principle that there are no principles. If the choice is between worrying about a mixture of church and state versus worrying about a consistent secularism, and if the body count is what counts, then I worry most about the implications of separation. Hands down.