Secularism and its discontents

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José Casanova is a professor in the Sociology Department of Georgetown University. He’s one of the world experts on religion and globalization. His 1994 book Public Religions in the Modern World was a seminal text in the field.

When I saw him speak last Wednesday, he was sitting next to Canada’s most famous philosoper, Charles Taylor. Casanova and Taylor, professor emeritus at McGill, were giving a lecture on secularism and the modern world in the Redpath Auditorium, a beautiful afterthought of a room in the museum of the same name. The auditorium was filled with a monastic hush as the scholars watched their audience file in. But the talk was also being streamed live online as part of the Tony Blair Faith and Globalization Initiative, in which McGill is a partner.

I found Casanova’s reassessment of the meaning and history of secularism so engaging that I asked for an interview. He agreed, so we met in the lobby of New Rez on Friday and had this conversation.

The McGill Daily: First, how do you define secularism?

José Casnova: I would say there are two different fundamental types of secularism: one is what we call a philosophy of history, or a theory about religion, how religion started in the primitive age of humanity and how it then became secularized and then, with modernity, disappeared. This is a very simple view of the genealogy and teleology of the direction of history and how religion is related to it. This comes out of the Enlightenment critique of religion. And this permeates much of our common sense understanding of reality. We take those things for granted because they are part of the way we understand the world. Religion is something of the past that weakens and disappears with modernity. So, this is one view of secularism. And of course it reflects the experience of Western, Christian society. Quebec is an obvious example: it was a very religious society fifty years ago, and it’s a very secular society today. So, the experience of the process of secularization is the personal experience of almost everybody.

So, if we understand this as a universal process of humanity, it’s a problem. Because this is a particular Christian process.

The second type of secularism is just simply a kind of doctrine of statecraft. You want to have democracy – principles of equal liberty for everybody. So some kind of institutional separation between political authority and religious authority is necessary.

One version of this secularism would be ‘we need to separate it because religion is dangerous. We need to protect the political sphere from religion, and so take religion out of the political sphere.’

Another version is ‘There are so many different religions, that none of them should have privilege.’ You have to think of a secular, neutral sphere as a place where all religions have equal rights and all individuals – religious or non-religious – have equal access to this public sphere. And I think this is the version of secularism that, as the world becomes more pluralistic, more multicultural, we need to embrace.

MD: That’s not the way Quebec looks at secularism, necessarily.

JC: No, because of the model of laïcité [literally, the French word for secularism, but, in practice, a very strict seperation of church and state] that they have adopted from the French. And as long as we are all Quebecois ex-Catholics, there is no problem. But the moment non-Catholics come in to Quebec, and they are neither Catholic nor secular, then it is a problem. So how can you be Quebecois and be neither secular nor Catholic? And how can your religion enter the public sphere or have equal rights?

MD: At your talk on Wednesday you mentioned how different cultures have used the model of laïcité in different ways. Can you name a couple of them, and describe how people see secularism in these different countries?

JC: Let’s think of three societies that have incorporated the French model, even the word laïcité, into their systems. The Turks did it because [Kemal] Attaturk – the founding father of the new Turkish nation – thought, ‘I’m going to take the French model and turn Turkey into a laïque system.’ Laïque meant the state, rather than pushing religion, told people you cannot dress as a Muslim, you have to adopt Western dress, and so on and so on. But, rather than pushing religion into the margins, what it did was take religion into the state. In the Turkish state, the largest ministerial department, with the largest number of civil servants, is not the army, but the ministry of religious affairs. Every imam in the country is a civil servant of the state. The laïque state controls the sermon of every Friday, in every mosque. The secular state completely controls Islam.

MD: That’s interesting, because one justification for secularism is to protect religion from state interference.

JC: One [model] is to protect the state and have it as far away from religion as possible. It’s the French model. The other is to create a state that controls religion completely. And the third is Senegal.

Senegal was a French colony, so it became a laïcité. But there you already had a system of many different forms of Islam – the Suffi Brotherhood, Mouride, the Tijāniyyah. And because there were so many forms of Islam, they did not want any of these to become the official state Islam, unlike in Turkey. [It’s] very similar to the [way the] American sects didn’t want any of the churches – either the Episcopal Church in the southern states, or the Congregational churches in New England – to be the church of the United States. So it is for the sake of religious pluralism that laïcité is pushed in Senegal.

MD: Why has the first type of secularism you described – the historical genealogy of religion, rather than the theory of statecraft – been a specifically Christian experience?

JC: I would argue that it goes back to the foundation of the early modern state, and every early modern state becoming a confessional state, whether Anglican or Lutheran or Catholic. And, so, there is a process of deconfessionalization of the state, of society, of individuals. Because modern individualism – we want freedom from authority, to develop our own identity. The age of authenticity demands from us to find ourselves, and so we want to free ourselves from any externally imposed identity. So we associate religion with an identity, which we didn’t choose, but which was given to us.

It’s interesting to compare this to the United States, which never had a national church, like so many other states. Their historical modernization has not coincided with the decline of religion, but actually with the growth of religion. So Americans identified becoming modern, becoming democratic, with becoming religious. We know by public opinion polls that Americans tend to exaggerate their religiosity, because they think to be a good modern American is to be religious. While Europeans tend to discount their religions.

MD: How has this Western narrative of secularization affected Western relations with the contemporary Muslim world?

JC: They are seen as anachronistic. As fundamentalist. Not modern enough. Not liberal enough. One of the most fundamental conflicts has to do with what gender equality means, and the notion that Islam is a patriarchal culture that does not believe in gender equality, and that it is an extremely repressive culture in terms of sex. But we cannot forget, in the 19th century, we portrayed the Muslims as the harem, the loose ones, and we were the Puritans, the proper – morally, sexually. And they were the depraved. So, something has changed in our culture in terms of our sexual mores.

 —Compiled by Eric Andrew-Gee